Unreal Medical Conditions
WORLD HISTORY | December 10, 2018
Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula in the 1931 adaptation / Wikimedia Commons
The medical profession has more mysteries than Sherlock Holmes could even imagine. Entire T.V. series have been made based solely on solving those mysteries. Some are based on very real conditions while others are far too outlandish to be real. And then there are the medical conditions that seem to come straight out of legends and fairy tales.
There are several medical conditions associated with vampirism, most of them exhibiting the symptom of photosensitivity. Xeroderma Pigmentosum, an incurable genetic disorder which generally manifests before age ten, is among these conditions. The disorder was first mentioned in a dermatology textbook in Vienna, Austria in 1870. Sufferers of this rare condition are extremely sensitive to ultraviolet radiation, including the sun as well as certain types of light bulbs. They can experience severe sunburn within minutes of exposure and are at a much higher risk for skin and ocular cancer. The primary treatment is prevention, i.e. the complete avoidance of sunlight.
Sometimes referred to as Werewolf Syndrome, Hypertrichosis is a genetic skin disorder that causes excessive hair growth over most of the body. While it is primarily a cosmetic disorder, it can also be a symptom of or accompanied by, a more life-threatening condition. There are several forms of hypertrichosis, but the one most often linked with lycanthropy is congenital terminal hypertrichosis due to the color and texture of the hair. This condition has been around since at least the Middle Ages as there are documented cases dating back to 1556. The first recorded case was that of Petrus Gonzales whose strange appearance led him to become an entertainer in King Henry II’s court. Other sufferers of the condition have made their living as sideshow performers.
Unlike the first two conditions, Foreign Accent Syndrome isn’t genetic. It occurs as a result of neurological damage to the brain, such as a stroke or trauma, and is characterized by changes in speech, general tone or rhythm, which can be mistaken for a foreign accent. While some might consider the accent change to be a good thing, it could actually be a signal of a serious condition, such as an impending stroke. The condition gained notoriety recently when a woman in Texas woke up with a British accent after a jaw surgery. The earliest case was recorded in 1907 by a French novelist named Pierre Marie. In 1941, a woman in Norway was reportedly ostracized by her own people after a head injury caused her to develop a German accent.
Choreomania, also known as Dancing Mania or Dancing Plague, is a mysterious condition which occurred on multiple occasions between the seventh and seventeenth centuries in Europe. The outbreaks consisted of large groups of people dancing uncontrollably until they collapsed from exhaustion. The first known outbreak occurred in the seventh century, but the two most notable were in the Holy Roman Empire in 1374 and 1518. In several cases, the uncontrollable dancing led to fatal heart attacks. There have been multiple possible explanations for the phenomenon, including mass hysteria, ergot poisoning, and epilepsy, but none of them fully explain all of the symptoms exhibited during outbreaks. Others speculate that the outbreaks may have been staged as a way to perform forbidden rituals without consequence.
Another mysterious condition, which is mostly considered a myth by medical professionals, is Canities subita, also known as Marie Antionette Syndrome. It is characterized by rapid whitening of the hair, usually following an emotional trauma. It is named for the famous queen who was decapitated during the French Revolution. According to the testimony of her lady-in-waiting, the queen’s hair turned white overnight. Mary, Queen of Scots, is said to have experienced the same phenomenon as a result of her suffering in prison. Medical professionals dismiss the condition as impossible for the simple reason that there are no living cells in the hair to be affected by the trauma. A more plausible explanation is alopecia areata, a stress-induced condition that causes hair loss. This condition is more likely to affect pigmented hair, causing an individual with salt and pepper hair to lose only the dark-colored locks. However, this explanation does not explain hair that continues to grow in white.
Alice in Wonderland Syndrome also referred to as dysmetropsia, is a neurological occurrence affecting perception which often results in objects appearing larger or smaller than their actual size. It can also affect how near or far away they appear. Other reports state that their surroundings appear to be moving. The symptoms are most common in adults who suffer from migraines or epilepsy, or who have experienced a head trauma. Of the ten to twenty percent of the population affected, most only experience it a few times throughout their lifetime and the events are not indicative of neurological or psychological illness. Persistence of the symptoms, however, could be a sign of an occipital lobe lesion.
Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS), referred to in the media as Sleeping Beauty Syndrome, is a rare neurological disorder which mostly affects adolescents. Individuals suffering from the disorder experience episodes of hypersomnolence, in which they sleep persistently for weeks or months, waking only to eat or go to the bathroom. Other symptoms include cognitive impairment, altered perceptions, compulsive eating, and hypersexuality. Additionally, sufferers often experience flu-like symptoms. For most people with the condition, the episodes become more infrequent with age, eventually ceasing entirely. The condition was named after a neurologist named Willi Kleine who observed the condition in 1925, having had five patients with persistent sleepiness, and psychiatrist Max Levin, who reported on it four years later.
While there is no evidence that the vampire legend was derived from photosensitivity or the tale of Sleeping Beauty from Kleine-Levin syndrome, these conditions suggest that fairy tales and legends might just be more than works of imagination.