Unexplained Le Roy Twitching Cases Show Why Doctors Don't Treat Women Equally

The mysterious symptoms exhibited by a group of (mostly) young women in the upstate New York town of Le Roy have left medical professionals and environmentalists dumbfounded and the rest of the nation captivated. With no clear serological evidence pointing specialists to an organic cause, doctors have determined, by default, that this must be some form of mass hysteria. It is unfortunate that these women are being depicted as a hysterical gaggle of hormonal teenage girls. All too often, female patients must fight off accusations of paranoia and anxiety in order to prove that their symptoms are the result of an actual affliction.

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine featured story on the situation in Le Roy notes that upon the onset of her mysterious twitching, Katie Krautwurst, one of the afflicted high school students, was told in the Emergency Room that she was having an anxiety attack. Her friend Thera Sanchez was told that her symptoms were stress-related. With medical professionals perplexed, this elusive diagnosis was attributed to mass psychogenic illness. A handful of doctors thought it could be conversion disorder, “a condition in which a person has blindness, paralysis, or other nervous system (neurologic) symptoms that cannot be explained by medical evaluation.”

Although no longer recognized as a disorder within the medical community, female hysteria was once a common diagnosis. The term “hysteria” is derived from the Greek word for uterus, and for hundreds of years doctors linked symptoms including hallucinations and nervousness to female anatomy.

While diagnosable female hysteria may no longer exist, in too many circumstances women still find themselves having to convince doctors they are physically ill. For instance, women who suffer from notoriously difficult-to-detect Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia are often encouraged to undergo psychological evaluations.

Whether or not hysteria is a factor in this particular instance remains to be seen.  While there may be a psychological component at play, the reflexive and dismissive manner in which these young women in Le Roy were immediately cast as attention-seeking teenagers overwhelmed by the stresses of high school is shortsighted.

While there are many theories as to why this disease hit this particular community, it is clear that there are many promising leads that have not fully been pursued. At this point, it is premature to say that there is no environmental component in this complicated equation. It is notable that the greater Rochester metropolitan area relied heavily on industry in its heyday, and Le Roy likely dealt with by-products of the local Jell-O plant that leeched into the ground and drinking water. This, in addition to a train accident in Le Roy four decades ago that left cyanide and industrial solvent in the soil, has raised eyebrows in the tight-knit town that perhaps the environment is playing a larger role than once suspected.

Only time will reveal the identity of the true culprit in LeRoy. Whether it is an environmental trigger, PANDAs (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders), a form of hysteria, or a combination of factors, one would expect medical professionals to investigate every conceivable scientific explanation, rather than follow red herrings.

Photo Credit: striatic

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Danielle Schlanger

Graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

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