Patient activism and the struggle for diagnosis: Gulf War illnesses and other medically unexplained physical symptoms in the US

Stephen Zavestoski, Phil Brown, Sabrina McCormick, Brian Mayer, Maryhelen D'Ottavi, Jaime C. Lucove

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

85 Scopus citations

Abstract

We examine Gulf War illnesses - which include the fatigue, joint pain, dermatitis, headaches, memory loss, blurred vision, diarrhea, and other symptoms reported by Gulf War veterans - in relation to other medically unexplained physical symptoms such as multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia. Our intent is to examine the diagnosis negotiations involved in these mysterious diseases, by showing the different forms of legitimacy involved in such interactions. Factors involved in diagnostic legitimacy are: diagnostic legitimacy in the medical community, lay acceptance of the diagnosis, uncertainty in looking for causes, and social mobilization. We conclude by noting that research may not be able to find any cause for these diseases/conditions; hence, it may be necessary to embrace medical uncertainty, and also to accept patient experience in order to facilitate diagnosis, treatment, and recovery process. Such a change can alter patients' expectations and taken-for-granted assumptions about medicine, and perhaps in turn reduce the frequency with which dissatisfied individuals form illness groups that mobilize to challenge what they see as an unresponsive medical system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-175
Number of pages15
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Volume58
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2004
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Gulf War illness
  • Multiple chemical sensitivity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science

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