Not as well understood as the medical community might wish, Morgellons disease (MD) or fiber disease is a condition in which thread-like fibers or dark materials seem to appear under one’s skin. Patients often feel like something is crawling under their skin or stinging them all over it. In a research published in February 2015, BMC Dermatology identifies MD as a ‘complex skin disorder, characterized by ulcerating lesions that have protruding or embedded filaments.’ In recent years, awareness about Morgellons has spread – as has the somewhat heated debate surrounding it.
Image source: PLOS One
MD patients complain of unpleasant skin sensations or conditions, including one or all of the following:
- Burning or stinging under the skin
- The sensation of insects crawling over or under the skin
- Skin lesions, rashes or sores that cause intense itching, and leave hyper-pigmented scars
- The illusion of or actual fibers or dark material appearing ‘stuck’ in the skin
Some patients also experience extreme weakness or fatigue, joint and muscle pain, difficulty falling or staying asleep, and hair, tooth and memory loss. However, these side symptoms will generally vary from person to person.
What makes Morgellons disease so controversial?
The symptoms of Morgellons are often hard for doctors to see or verify – many patients have claimed that granules, worms and fibers appear under or come out of their skin during Morgellons, with little physical evidence to show for it. In January 2008, the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) launched an investigation into Morgellons on the request of Senator Diane Feinstein, after a series of MD cases were reported in California. The research sought to bring objectivity and empirical understanding to Morgellons disease, through detailed examinations of patients – including blood and urine tests, biopsies of skin sores, and lab testing of the strings, fibers and other materials patients reported being in their skins.
To the surprise and disappointment of many MD patients worldwide, the research found no single underlying illness among the patients.
According to the CDC research published in PLOS One, lab analysis of the materials that patients believe are ‘stuck’ in their skin has shown that these fibers are not uncommon or unnatural, being the same as those typically found in non-patients. No parasites or mycobacteria were found, and most material that came from patients’ skins was composed of cellulose. In the same vein, the skin abrasions, lesions and sores were either from arthropod bites or – in an interesting turn of events – because people had rubbed their skins raw, to get rid of the material inside or eliminate the unpleasant sensations associated with its presence.
The results of such research have led most doctors to believe that Morgellons is a mental illness, which stems from delusions or somatic concerns (a term for when people obsess over their health and what diseases they might have). However, other doctors argue that Morgellons is an actual physical illness that affects people, and the World Wide Web is full of people sharing stories of how MD has affected their lives at not just an emotional but also a physical level.
What causes Morgellons?
While Morgellons is considered, in the medical universe, as an unexplained dermopathy – a skin condition that happens without a known cause – researchers have proposed multiple explanations for its causes over the years.
Image source: emPower
Multiple studies have shown a link between MD and mental health issues. Many of the Morgellons patients in research conducted by the CDC were obsessive about their physical health in general, showing a high tendency for somatic concerns. In addition to this, half of the total patients were struggling with drug abuse, while almost 60% had cognitive deficits. Therefore, one stream of thought that current research suggests is that Morgellons could be a form of delusional parasitosis, a mental condition in which persons with intense somatic concerns think their skin is infected with parasites or ‘bugs'.
Research also shows that the illness may be linked to a reduced quality of life on the health scale. The CDC’s research, for example, shows that the majority of the MD patients studied were struggling with chronic health conditions. In the words of a team of researchers at the CDC, MD is seen to be ‘associated with significantly reduced health-related quality of life.'
With debate on whether MD is a physical illness or not abound, it is important to remember that patients have had – and do present with – physical proof of some of their symptoms. A research published in BMC Dermatology presents evidence for spirochetal infection in MD patients, and shows that Morgellons could be a complex illness associated with Lyme disease. So far, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that Morgellons is not a physical ailment. Until a root cause for the disease is identified, the reasons for MD will – and should – continue to be studied.
Who gets Morgellons?
According to the CDC, a review of five years of MD cases shows that this condition most often occurs in middle-aged white women – of the total cases from 2003 to 2008 studies, 83% of patients were middle-aged women, while 69% of this figure was white. From research by the CDC, it can also be concluded that patients combating challenges such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse are at an increased risk for MD.
Diagnosis and treatment
Image source: Mental Healthy
Because the CDC has established that Morgellons does not occur due to an outside infection or anything else in the environment, diagnosis has to be done in collaboration with the patient, based on the symptoms and medical history the patient communicates. Your medical provider is likely to look for known conditions with evidence-based treatments, before considering a diagnosis of MD. The Mayo Clinic suggests considering long-term mental health treatment to fight off Morgellons, including treatment for anxiety, depression, addiction or any other condition that can affect your cognition and behavioral patterns.
In the end, irrespective of the course of treatment you and your medical provider mutually decide upon, remember that all MD patients are entitled to the best possible care and counselling in both the short and long terms.