Morgellons Disease

In this newly described condition, some patients report strange plastic fibers growing from their skin.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Alternative Medicine, Conspiracies

Skeptoid #206
May 18, 2010
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Today the skeptical eye focuses on a newly described condition from the medical fringe: Morgellons disease. This is a skin condition in which a painful rash or other open sores appear on various parts of the body, but with a unique characteristic: Found embedded within these sores are colored fibers, apparently made of plastic or other synthetics. Morgellons has created something of a battle line drawn in the sand between sufferers and medical science. Sufferers believe these fibers are being extruded from the body itself, while doctors and psychiatrists generally agree that the fibers come from the environment and are merely being caught in the sores as always happens with scabs.

Skin rashes and sores are one of the physical symptoms of acute stress, and to most doctors who are aware of it, Morgellons appears to be nothing more than this. It's often compared to delusional parasitosis, where the patient believes that the normal itching of a stress-induced rash is caused by unseen parasites living in or on the skin. No parasites are ever found, but some patients tend to react with hostility toward any diagnosis that does not support their preconceived notion. But doctors can only go by the best state of our current knowledge, and are the first to admit that we don't know everything about the human body or about diseases. So to take a truly skeptical perspective, we start by setting aside what we think we know and looking at the evidence, beginning with the history.

Morgellons had a particularly inauspicious beginning. In 2001, a former hospital lab technician turned stay-at-home mom, Mary Leitao, noticed a raw patch under the lip of her two-year-old son Drew. She took him to eight (!) different doctors, dissatisfied with each diagnosis that there was nothing unusual wrong with Drew. She picked fibers from the surface of the scab and examined them under Drew's toy microscope. Her own conclusion was that the fibers were being extruded from Drew's skin, rather than coming from a blanket or stuffed animal or anything else that toddlers bury their faces in. Drawing on the word morgellons from an old French reference to black hairs, she created the name Morgellons Disease.

Leitao demanded that the doctors prescribe antibiotics, which they would not do, given the lack of any apparent illness. She became obsessed with finding a doctor who would validate this new disease she'd invented. One doctor at Johns Hopkins wrote to another "I found no evidence of [anything suspicious] in Andrew... Ms. Leitao would benefit from a psychiatric evaluation and support, whether Andrew has Morgellons Disease or not. I hope she will cease to use her son in further exploring this problem."

Another doctor at Johns Hopkins agreed, and even took it a step further, stating that Leitao appeared to be a case of Münchausen's by proxy. Münchausen's Syndrome is where you pretend to be sick because you love getting attention from doctors and hospitals. Münchausen's by proxy is a psychiatric syndrome where you take a child or other family member, and promote them as being sick, to get the same attention. It need not be a conscious deception, Mary Leitao almost certainly does genuinely believe her son is ill; but the psychiatric pathology is the same. She has since gone on to found the Morgellons Research Foundation, which currently lists 14,700 registrants.

An Internet search today reveals that Morgellons has become conflated with chemtrail conspiracy mongering. Some believe that contrails left by airplanes are actually the government spraying toxins to sicken the population with Morgellons. An article on the conspiracy theory web site Rense.com compares two pictures, one claimed to show a fiber from a Morgellons sufferer, and another claiming to show a fiber from chemtrail spraying. It says:

Common characteristics of both types of fibers appear to be similar size and chaotic, uncontrolled growth. If these fibers are the result of highly advanced nanotechnology then we have found the disease, and possible who is behind it. But what would be the purpose of forcing this ailment on the population? Torture? To create a new pandemic in order to sell a new drug for a "treatment?"

Many pro-Morgellons sources claim that the fibers have defied all explanation: They are not human hair, they are not synthetic fiber, and they are not natural plant-based fibers. But I found two significant problems with these assertions. First, they seem to be nothing more than assertions, often accompanied by a story that someone looked at them under a microscope and was somehow able to rule out all known fiber compositions. Second, there is little agreement on the characteristics of the fibers, and thus no way such an assertion can be broadly applied. Some sufferers describe hard, solid plastic shards, often in bright colors. Some describe them as thick hairs. The most common photograph on the Internet shows a tangle of fine filaments. Others find curly threads consistent with synthetic fibers from brightly colored blankets, carpet, or sweaters.

So now let's look at the common medical explanation for Morgellons: Acute stress. Acute stress is known to produce all the same symptoms reported by Morgellons sufferers, including painful, itching skin rashes that the patients scratch, producing open sores that capture fibers from clothing and the environment. Stress also results in chronic fatigue, headaches, sleep loss, memory loss, and mood disorders. Do you think Morgellons might be stressful? Here's a description of what it's like to have Morgellons, from Mary Leitao's Morgellons Research Foundation:

It is difficult to understand the tremendous suffering caused by this disease. Many patients report feeling abandoned by the medical community, as they experience increasingly bizarre, disfiguring and painful symptoms, while often being unable to receive medical treatment for their condition. A large number of patients become financially devastated and without health insurance because they can no longer work. Most people who suffer from Morgellons disease report feeling frightened and hopeless.

I've gotten at least a dozen emails from Morgellons sufferers over the past couple of years, and I've also gone to YouTube and watched the reports of dozens more. There is one thing that they nearly all have in common: They almost always say something like "The doctors told me I was crazy, they told me I was imagining it, they told me it was all in my head." In my experience communicating with such people, I've come to doubt that what they were told was actually worded like this. It was probably something like "the causes of what you're going through are usually psychogenic," which the patient misinterprets and exaggerates into a straw man when they retell it. Psychiatrist Alistair Munro, author of Delusional Disorder, said "The moment you mention psychiatrists, these patients get extremely angry. They say there's nothing wrong with their brain."

You don't have to be crazy, and you don't have to imagine anything, to experience these symptoms. It's common for people who are perfectly sane and smart to make erroneous self-diagnoses. The wealth of validating, affirming information on the Internet, on sites like Mary Leitao's, exacerbate this problem. Many patients see themselves as "armed for battle" with doctors, with a battery full of information from the Internet. This frequently results in a stalemate. Patients charge that the doctors have closed their minds to the possibility that they suffer from a physical disease, and doctors find that patients have closed their minds to all but their own Internet-supported self diagnosis.

So how do we bridge this gap? Both parties have to open their minds and take steps. The doctors have already done so. In early 2008, the Centers for Disease Control launched a major investigation to learn more about Morgellons, which for now they're calling "unexplained dermopathy". The investigation is currently underway, and there's an email address and a phone number with recorded updates on the latest news. The study is being done through a medical center in Northern California that has an unusually high number of patients reporting the symptoms. For more information, visit CDC.gov/unexplaineddermopathy.

Getting the patients to take steps of their own and open their minds has proven substantially more difficult, for the reasons just discussed. Doctors face the challenge of getting patients to agree to treatment for a diagnosis to which they're often actively hostile. Despite many doctors' best efforts to communicate to their patients that they might benefit from treating the stress that accompanies their symptoms, all too often patients wrongly hear "You're crazy, you're imagining it." It's like a mine field. If I were a doctor, this would be my pitch to a Morgellons sufferer:

We don't yet know what causes these filaments and the related symptoms, but the CDC is currently investigating it. We hope to have a proven diagnosis and treatment once they finish their studies. In the meantime, we may be able to make you more comfortable by helping you deal with the stress that this is causing you. Whatever the cause turns out to be, the accompanying stress is making you suffer more than you deserve to.

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Does stress treatment help? The psychiatric literature does contain published accounts of delusional parasitosis being successfully treated with psychotropic drugs and with psychotherapy, but practitioners consistently report the difficulty of getting patients to undergo such treatment. So far there don't seem to be any randomized controlled trials of treatments for Morgellons specifically, but from everything we know about delusional parasitosis and other psychogenic conditions, there's every reason to expect psychotherapy to be equally effective for Morgellons.

The Morgellons Research Foundation does recommend one treatment: the use of long-term antibiotics to treat presumed bacteria. Although bacterial infections are known not to cause strange plastic fibers to grow from your skin, and thus are logically ruled out as the cause, the belief that the antibiotic will help can leverage the placebo effect to reduce or eliminate the stress caused by belief in the disease. In any case where there is no actual disease agent, a placebo of any kind has a good chance of becoming a partial or complete cure. But there are good reasons not to take unnecessary antibiotics, so non-drug therapies would be preferred, if sufferers would be willing to attempt them.

If you really want to help someone who suffers from Morgellons or any other psychogenic condition, you can't only rely on telling them they're wrong and depending on them to take all the steps. But you also don't have to dishonestly pretend their self-diagnosis is true. There is middle ground that you can both reach, if you're both willing to find it.

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

CDC. "Unexplained Dermopathy." Official Site. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 Jun. 2007. Web. 15 May. 2010. <http://www.cdc.gov/unexplaineddermopathy/>

Devita-Raeburn, E. "The Morgellons Mystery." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 1 Mar. 2007. Web. 14 May. 2010. <http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200702/the-morgellons-mystery>

Harlan, C. "Mom Fights for Answers on What's Wrong with Her Son." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 23 Jul. 2006, Newspaper.

Koblenzer, C. "The challenge of Morgellons disease." Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 1 Jan. 2006, Volume 55, Number 5: 920-922.

Koo, J., Lee, C. "Delusions of parasitosis. A dermatologist's guide to diagnosis and treatment." American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. 1 Jan. 2001, Volume 2, Number 5: 285-90.

MRF. "Frequently Asked Questions." Official Site. Morgellons Research Foundation, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 15 May. 2010. <http://www.morgellons.org/faq-home.htm>

Robles, D., Romm, S., Combs, H., Olson, J., Kirby, P. "Delusional disorders in dermatology: a brief review." Dermatology Online Journal. 1 Jan. 2008, Volume 14, Number 6.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Morgellons Disease." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 18 May 2010. Web. 31 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4206>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 156 comments

How do you convinve a delusional person they are delusional? You can't, you just send yourself nuts trying.

Nick, Brisbane
August 12, 2013 8:04pm

Amen Nick. Try hypochondriacs. You cant convince them that its medically ridiculous to exacerbate issues. Clearly people will ignore you when real issues arrive.

Delusional adoption is a problem!

Montalbano Debaldy, sin city, Oz
September 10, 2013 2:30pm

I have never heard about this "illness" before today.
How does it happen to be so common in the USA?

Jan, Devon, UK
October 24, 2013 12:58pm

Of course Morgellons is stressful. It sucks to have your clothes ruined, to feel sharp biting sensations, and to have almost everybody disbelieve you. But do you think stress caused me to have a rash for the better part of a year? (And shows no sign that it is disappearing any time soon.) Does it cause hairs and clear fibers to grow up from the waistband of our underwear? Does it cause round or oval pearl-colored, plastic feeling things to come off my scalp? (Only had two of them, one plain and one covered in clear goo.) Does it cause dripping ceilings, gray fuzz on walls, black marks on fabrics, red lint balls on all different colored clothes and shoes? One mesh jewry bag suddenly sprouted threads off it which were longer than the bag itself. (I hadn't looked at the bag in 2 or 3 weeks.) There is a mold/moisture connection (alot of things in the environment disappeared with use of DampRid) and sometimes it is vectored by scabies, chiggers,etc.
People who write skeptic blogs are always so proud to admit "people are really suffering" but you always somehow think it's just some itching and crawling and fibers. What about all the creepy things that come out of our bodies? How do they jibe with "It's just a streess-induced rash, but the poor dears are really suffering"? Also, every doctor or skeptic blog always mentions scratching or neurotic excoriation. I for one have always refrained from scratching, because my skin integrity is one of my most valued assets.

Nursie, Northampton
November 16, 2013 4:01pm

I see a lot of people who believe they have Morgellon's disease here getting offended as if the scientific community is saying "Oh, it's fake, quit whining!" but, actually, in medicine a diagnosis a condition as being psychogenic does not make it any less distressing or real for the patient. It should be made clear: I don't think anyone in the medical industry doubts that these patients ARE EXPERIENCING the symptoms they describe to the horrifically distressing degree they describe them. The human brain is an amazing organ, capable of completely changing how we experience the entire world because of a single miswired neuron! So to say patients are truly experiencing these symptoms is not a stretch of the imagination at all! I

That being said, it is vitally impotant for helping any patients displaying these symptoms that we recognize the true cause of the symptoms so we can treat them at the source and overwhelming evidence suggests it is psychogenic. Therefore, treating for a psychogenic illness is the best way to help these patients and any practitioner pretending it is an infection is doing these patients a huge disservice! And, furthermore, those giving them antibiotics are doing the world a disservice by not only taking money from these vulnerable, scared patients in exchange for false cures but by also contributing to the growing global problem of widespread antibiotic resistance!

Also, to Nursie above: love the Blackadder reference. :L (I'm assuming it was deliberate)

Cian, Dublin, Ireland
November 23, 2013 7:25pm

I've had these movement sensations under and on the skin for the past four months, stinging sensations on head and face, it's hard to get a decent nights sleep, temporary minor sores e.t.c. the dripping ceilings thing is uncannily familiar, weird as it sounds, have seen various doctors and done treatments but still having problems with it.

It's disorientating to say the least I can see where poster Nursie is coming from and understand the skepticism too but that said it's hard to not to feel a bit ridiculed.

I've been on anti-psychotics and took all the advise from doctors that I could get. Seems to spread throughout the immediate environment although just seems to be me that is susceptible at the moment... I don't know.

Don't want to get into a debate here seems hopeless to be honest.

Morgellons or not all I can do is check for matching symptoms online and do what I can to treat it safely as it's really the only thing that's helping right now.

Paullie, Dublin, Ireland
January 9, 2014 4:04am

Paullie: that crawling itching stinging sensation can be a result of a lifetime of smoking(my father may he rest in peace was plagued with this in his 80's) or from subluxation of spinal vertabrae. It is also not impossible that a drug you are taking or have taken in the past responsible. I'd also strongly consider environmental or food allergies as a possiblity. And, creepiest of all, if you have been to any tropical clime, there is the possibility that you have picked up a parasite that is happily crawing around under your hide.

I would check out all of these before I'd consider Morgellons Disease . This is a quality of life issue and should not be ignored. Allergies can develop in adulthood and that may be the easiest place to start. Cian from Ireland nails it on the head!

Swampwitch, Gainesville Fl
March 19, 2014 6:47am

The more pollution we create, the more difficult diagnosing anything becomes. We now have a full array of mystery diseases and conditions. I have seen microscopy of Morgellons. It looks like a bacteria in a case. Very odd.
http://www.morgellons-research.org/morgellons/morgellons-microscop1.htm
I can't re find that pic. It was on WIKI though.
Skepticism is healthy. Especially when one doubts the skeptic. I am confident Mr. Dunning understands this. Because life runs deeper than we know.

jtuaim@gmail.com, Cleveland, Ohio
March 21, 2014 3:05am

As someone who is open to believing this is real, I wouldn't start screaming Morgellon's until there was actual fibers sticking out. A skin rash does not justify it.

John, NC
March 22, 2014 7:43am

Jan of the UK,

Actually, it is not an affliction found in the US, it is almost entirely found, unsurprisingly, in California - notably fashionable neighborhoods in the LA area. The nervous, chain-smoking ex-folk-pop singer Joni Mitchell is a famous sufferer of this "disease."

Paul D, Pittsburgh UD
March 26, 2014 7:24am

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