Joni Mitchell Battling Baffling Ailment

You may have heard that singing/songwriting legend Joni Mitchell was hospitalized last week after being found unconscious in her Los Angeles home. She was conscious and alert by the time paramedics took her to the hospital. The cause of the hospitalization has not been revealed, although her official website released the following statement:

“Joni remains under observation in the hospital and is resting comfortably. We are encouraged by her progress and she continues to improve and get stronger each day.”

What most people don’t know, is that the 71-year-old  Mitchell has been battling an usual ailment called Morgellons Disease for at least eight years.

In a 2010 LA Times interview, Joni Mitchell related her personal experience with Morgellons:

LAT: You’ve come out in the media as a sufferer of a controversial condition known as Morgellons. How is your health currently?

JM: I have this weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space, but my health’s the best it’s been in a while, Two nights ago, I went out for the first time since Dec. 23: I don’t look so bad under incandescent light, but I look scary under daylight. Garbo and Dietrich hid away just because people became so upset watching them age, but this is worse. 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. Morgellons is a slow, unpredictable killer — a terrorist disease: it will blow up one of your organs, leaving you in bed for a year. But I have a tremendous will to live: I’ve been through another pandemic — I’m a polio survivor, so I know how conservative the medical body can be. In America, the Morgellons is always diagnosed as “delusion of parasites,” and they send you to a psychiatrist. I’m actually trying to get out of the music business to battle for Morgellons sufferers to receive the credibility that’s owed to them.

The illness left Mitchell unable to perform. In 2014, she told author Malka Marom, author of the book Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words that, at the height of her battle with the illness, she could not wear any clothes.

“All the time it felt like I was being eaten alive by parasites living under my skin. I couldn’t leave my house for several years… Sometimes it got so bad I couldn’t walk and I’d have to crawl across the floor. My legs would cramp up, just like I was having a polio spasm.”

What is Morgellons Disease?

Morgellons Disease is a controversal disorder. It is not known whether it is a true dermatological disease process or the physical manifestation of a psychiatric disorder. It is sometimes referred to as Delusional Parasitosis by those who believe it is a psychological disorder.

Morgellons is a constellation of symptoms which includes:

• Intense itching
• Biting, stinging and crawling sensations under and on the skin
• Eruption of rashes or sores with possibility of non-healing lesions (although this may    not be a symptom in everyone)
• Bacterial infections
• Fungal/yeast overgrowth
• Debilitating fatigue
• Neurological problems and ‘brainfog’
• Fibers under and emerging from the skin. These fibers are are the defining symptom of Morgellons.
• ‘Black specks,’ and ‘sand-type particles’ just under and emerging from the skin
• Possible joint pain and/or muscle spasms


Morgellons first came to public attention when there seemed to be a cluster of patients in Northern California.  In 2008, CDC began an investigation that sought to better understand the unexplained skin condition. They found 115 patients who reported the emergence of fibers or materials from the skin accompanied by skin lesions and/or disturbing skin sensations. They found that the illness was most prevalent in middle aged white females. Many also complained of chronic fatigue, and reported their overall health as fair or poor.

The researchers did biopsies of these patients’ skin and skin lesions. Biopsies of skin most commonly showed sun damage, and lesions were most consistent with arthropod (insect) bites or chronic scratches. No parasites or fungi were detected.  They also tested the material collected from the skin and found that it was composed of cellulose, most likely of cotton origin.

They concluded that “this unexplained dermopathy was rare  but associated with significantly reduced health-related quality of life. No common underlying medical condition or infectious source was identified, similar to more commonly recognized conditions such as delusional infestation.”

There are some scientists, however, that believe that Morgellons may be caused by an organism similar to the one which causes Lyme Disease: borreliosis. More studies are needed.

While there is no specific cure for Morgellons disease, individuals who suffer from this condition have been found to benefit from medications that treat psychosis or tics, like olanzapine (Zyprexa, Zydis, Relprevv) or pimozide (Orap).


Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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