What Is Morgellons Disease? A Primer on Joni Mitchell's Rare Condition

Joni Mitchell
 Jack Robinson/Getty Images

Joni Mitchell photographed in Nov. 1968.

Joni Mitchell, who entered the hospital yesterday (March 31), has long suffered from a little-understood condition called Morgellons disease. The intensity of the disease caused the singer to almost completely stop performing, recording, and traveling in recent years.

Joni Mitchell Hospitalized

The 71-year-old singer first discussed her battle with Morgellons in a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, telling them she had "this weird, incurable disease that seems like it's from outer space." Her vivid description left many fans concerned: "Fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm: they cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable or mineral." 

In 2013, she told The Star, “I haven’t been doing much lately because I’ve just come through about seven years of a flattening kind of illness. I’m not cured but I’ve found a helpful physician way outside the box. Western medicine says this doesn’t even exist; it’s a psychotic disease. It’s not.”

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"I can't fly without consequences at this point," Mitchell told Billboard in a 2014 interview. "I can fly off to Canada, that's about all I can handle. And I'm sick on both ends for about 10 to 12 days. It's all that heavy metal in the air, and also viruses. My immune system is also very taxed, and the metal that comes off the exhaust and gets into the cabin and gets into my system...just being delicate. I'm always jetlagged so touring was always hard for me. And now it's kind of impossible."

In the 2014 book Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, she elaborated on the severity of her symptoms, saying "I couldn't wear clothing. I couldn't leave my house for several years. Sometimes it got so I'd have to crawl across the floor. My legs would cramp up, just like a polio spasm. It hit all of the places where I had polio."

Struggles with Morgellons have been controversial within the medical community, however. The disease was only named in 2002 by a Pennsylvania lab technician name Mary Leitao. Sufferers say fibers grow from lesions in the skin, potentially because of tiny parasites. Crawling sensations, extreme itching, and general fatigue/mental fog are also named as symptoms of the condition. While sufferers have united behind groups like the Morgellons Research Foundation, the broader medical community still does not recognize the disease. Since it isn't a recognized condition, there aren't many reliable numbers on sufferers, though initial outbreaks seemed to cluster in California, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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The Center for Disease Control, which released a report on Morgellons in 2012, did not find that the disease had infectious or environmental causes. "Unexplained apparent dermopathy," as they refer to it, is a psychosomatic condition -- all biopsies of affected areas came back either negative, or positive for skin conditions like dermatitis. Patients who self-diagnose with Morgellons are often treated for delusional parasitosis (the delusion that they are infested with parasites).

One argument for Morgellons as psychosomatic ailment is that the disease's rise is directly correlated with the rise of the Internet -- patients who self-diagnose find support in the Morgellons communities that exist online, and the existence of other sufferers lends credence to their own experience. Rather than accept a doctor's diagnosis that there is no medical cause for their symptoms, they seek comfort in their shared suffering -- as Slate's Torie Bosch put it, "because of the stigma of mental illness, people are loath to accept such a diagnosis." 

One article on the Mayo Clinic's website simply states, "Further study is needed."