The Psychiatrist’s Role in Treating Unseen Diseases

A significant number of Americans suffer from “invisible” chronic diseases such as fibromyalgia (FM), chronic pain syndromes, and myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/ CFS). (Table 1) Because these conditions are visually imperceptible by others and have nonspecific symptoms such as fatigue, patients frequently experience skepticism and invalidation by family members, friends, employers, and even healthcare providers.1,2

To raise public awareness of these conditions and acknowledge the struggle of those who are affected by them, an organization called “My Invisible Fight”3 has dubbed the week of September 28 through October 2 “Invisible Illness Awareness Week.”

“Many people, even some medical professionals, imply that illnesses such as CFS — also called systemic exertion intolerance disease or SEID — are not ‘real’ because there are no diagnostic tests, such as laboratory or imaging studies,” Joanna Charnas, LICSW, LCSW, author of Living Well with Chronic Illness,4 told Psychiatry Advisor.

Charnas, who suffers from ME/CSF, said, “I have sometimes been misjudged and it was hurtful.”

Table 1.
Epidemiology of “Invisible” Diseases
Illness Estimated Prevalence
Fibromyalgia 2%10
ME/CFS Prevalence unknown; disease affects ~836,000 – 2.5 million11
Chronic Pain 30.7%12
Multiple chemical sensitivities 12.6% – 15.9%6,13,14
ME/CFS=myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome