When we think of disability we often think of things that are immediately visible, but often times, people show no symptoms. It is nearly impossible to look at someone and tell if they are struggling with a disability or chronic illness.
96 per cent of people with chronic medical conditions live with symptoms that are considered disabling but are not visible. People with invisible illnesses often times will not look sick, as a result, they face skepticism from their families and healthcare providers.
People with chronic invisible illnesses will often internalize their pain, reluctant to talk about it or ask for accommodations, for fear that they won’t be believed.
The most important thing you can do to help people with invisible illnesses is to educate yourself. Here are several illnesses, diseases, and disabilities that although you might not know it, are so common that one of your loved ones could very well be struggling with.
Fibromyalgia is a medical condition that affects 2-8 per cent of the population. It affects the muscles in a way that leads to an increased response to pain and chronic pain. Women are diagnosed twice as often as men. There is no cure and the cause is unkown but it is thought to be the result of both environmental and genetic factors. Fibromyalgia is treated with a mix of medication, diet, and exercise.
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS)
EDS is a genetic disorder caused by a mutation of a number of different genes. Symptoms vary depending on the genes that have been affected but it is characterized by hyperflexible joints and skin abnormalities. Individuals with EDS are often double jointed and experience hypermobility in their knees, fingers, toes, shoulders and other joints. Their skin is often translucent, soft, and hyperelastic. People with EDS experience chronic fatigue, joint pain, and fractures that go untreated because of their high threshold for pain. EDS affects 1 in 5000 people and cannot be cured. The pain can be treated with medication and physical therapy.
Depression can affect anyone, of any age, at any time, yet its symptoms are often invisible. It can be the result of traumatic events, family history, or seemingly no reason at all. People may fall into a major depressive episode at any point in their lives or depression may be chronic and persistent. Antidepressants can be prescribed to ease the effects but no two people with depression are alike, and treatment for one person may not work for another.
Lupus is a disease that mainly affects women. It is characterized by fatigue, rashes, chest pain, shortness of breath and photosensitivity. Lifestyle adjustments and medications are used to treat lupus.
There are no outward symptoms of dyslexia, but this learning disability can affect a person’s everyday life. Individuals with dyslexia have trouble reading despite having otherwise “normal” intelligence. This disability is often first noticed in school and when no accommodations are offered, can affect people’s education.
Ulcerative Colitis (UC)
Ulcerative Colitis is a chronic illness resulting from an inflammation of the colon and rectum. The causes are unknown but genetics and the environment could be factors. The disease often shows no outward symptoms but it can be so severe that the large intestine has to be removed entirely. UC causes intense pain, and surgery can be a long and arduous task that some never fully recover from.
Endometriosis affects the tissue that lines the uterus. This tissue is called endometrial tissue, hence the name of the condition. In individuals suffering from endometriosis, endometrial tissue grows outside of the uterus (most often near the ovaries and fallopian tubes, though it can grow anywhere). This leads to intense pain during a woman’s menstrual cycle and during ovulation. The cramps experienced can often be so severe that they keep an individual from leaving their bed. This disease can be treated with oral contraceptives and over the counter pain relievers.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are plenty of other invisible illnesses that can affect an individual’s ability to function as they normally do. The most important thing to do when you find out that a loved one is suffering from an invisible illness is to talk about it. Ask them what they need, listen to what they are comfortable sharing with you, and most importantly, believe them when they talk about the pain that they may experience.