This article originally appeared on ProPublica. You can read it here.
Once it was called "hysterical" movement disorder, or simply "hysteria." Later it was labeled "psychogenic." Now it's a "functional disorder."
By any name, it's one of the most puzzling afflictions — and problematic diagnoses — in medicine. It often has the same symptoms, like uncontrollable shaking and difficulty walking, that characterize brain diseases like Parkinson's.
But the condition is caused by stress or trauma and often treated by psychotherapy. And, in a disparity that is drawing increased scrutiny, most of those deemed to suffer from it — as high as 80% in some studies — are women.
Whether someone has Parkinson's or a functional disorder can be difficult to determine. But the two labels result not only in different treatments but in different perceptions of the patient. A diagnosis of Parkinson's is likely to create sympathy, but a functional diagnosis can stigmatize patients and cast doubt on the legitimacy of their illness.
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