Mystery Maladies That Will Surprise You

When tennis great Venus Williams pulled out of the second-round match at the U.S. Open on Wednesday, August 31 after revealing that she has Sjogren's (SHOW-grins) syndrome, people everywhere were scratching their heads and wondering just exactly what this disease is. Turns out it's an autoimmune condition that most often strikes women over 40 - and it's far from the only obscure medical condition that most of us don't even know exists. We don't mean to give you "medical student's disease" - the feeling that, yikes, you have all the symptoms of a disorder you're reading about for the first time - but we thought it would be interesting to highlight some unsung maladies that are more common than you'd think. Let's start with Venus's health issue.

Sjogren's Syndrome.
Typical symptoms are pain, fatigue, dry eyes and a dry mouth because of decreased production of tears and saliva. Other symptoms may include joint pain, swelling, and stiffness, skin rashes and dry skin, vaginal dryness, and a dry cough. The Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation website describes the disease as a chronic autoimmune illness in which white blood cells attack moisture-producing glands. An estimated 4 million Americans, mostly women, have it. There is no cure for Sjogren's but it can be managed with a healthy lifestyle and some medical treatments if necessary. Many people do very well simply using over-the-counter preparations and making sure to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Others may need prescription medications. In rare cases, minor surgery is required on the tear ducts.


According to the Morgellons Research Foundation, crawling, biting and stinging sensations plus blue, black or red fibers appearing on the skin are symptomatic of a disease that nearly 14,000 people have. The name was coined in 2002 by the mother of a toddler whose first word was "bugs" as he clawed at this itchy skin. The term references a 17th century French physician. Current scientific opinion is that Morgellons is a new name for a condition called delusional parasitosis or that it is a subset of symptoms of other disorders. However, the Morgellons Research Foundation and patients with the syndrome have lobbied members of Congress and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the validity of disorder. Sufferers say the symptoms verge on the unbearable and that topical creams and analgesics offer only moderate relief. The CDC has begun an epidemiological investigation into what it calls "Unexplained Dermopathy."

Foreign Accent Syndrome

People with foreign accent syndrome suddenly find themselves speaking in a way that is totally different from their native speech pattern. In 2002, researchers at Oxford University in England found that sufferers have brain abnormalities that lead to alterations in pitch, longer vowel sounds, and other changes. According to the Journal of Neurolinguistics, patients frequently have never heard the accent they adopt. The first confirmed case was a Norwegian woman who ended up with a German accent in 1941 and was ostracized as a result. Most recently, in July of 2011 Oregon resident Karen Butler, 58, had anesthesia for dental surgery and woke up with a British accent. She has never traveled outside of the United States. Doctors believe she suffered a mild brain injury or a small stroke that caused her to develop the condition. Patients sometimes get their original accents back through intensive speech therapy, but not always. Karen says she actually likes her new accent and plans to keep it.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome

Named after Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," this disorder causes people to see objects as being much smaller or much larger than they actually are. The medical terms for these symptoms are microphasia and macrophasia. Migraine headaches often accompany the altered visual perception. The senses of hearing and touch can also be affected and a sufferer's body image may be out of whack. Carroll did have migraines so scholars have speculated that his writing may have been inspired by the now eponymous condition. The syndrome is typically temporary and may be brought on by brain tumors, mononucleosis, or recreational drugs. Curioser and curioser!

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