Although fibromyalgia is estimated to affect 10 million Americans and three to six percent of the global population, it is rare to see the illness featured in popular media. Unfortunately, there are still many people (medical professionals included) who don’t believe fibromyalgia is a “real” illness, or perhaps think it’s just a “catch-all” diagnosis for when nothing else seems to be wrong. There is also a great deal of misinformation about what fibro is and how it affects people, which can lead to hurtful judgments.
Featuring fibromyalgia on TV shows can be a great way to increase recognition and raise awareness of the disease – when it’s represented accurately. We asked Mighty community which shows have depicted fibromyalgia, and what they thought of the portrayal. Hopefully more television shows will shed a light on the reality of the illness to promote better understanding of those affected by fibro.
In the pilot episode of “House” (season one, episode one), Dr. Gregory House meets a patient in the clinic who believes he has either fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. House brushes off the patient’s concerns as the result of aging. He replaces the pills in a bottle of Vicodin with mints, which he then gives to the patient as a placebo. House keeps the Vicodin for himself, and the patient later returns for a refill of “Vicodin.”
“On ‘House,’ a patient came into the clinic complaining of fatigue and tiredness, and said it might be fibromyalgia. House, annoyed, prescribes him eight hours of sleep and dismisses him,” Marck Andrew Calaway explained. “That’s the only time I think I’ve seen a portrayal of fibro in the wild.”
Zee De Beer wrote, “It was the first episode, and probably intended to show how much of an ass House is. It also honestly reflects many doctors’ attitudes toward conditions like fibro which can’t be detected on tests and people who read too much WebMD. Let’s face it, fibro is a controversial diagnosis because it’s viewed as a catch-all for unexplainable symptoms. I watched that episode the other day and I actually laughed when he gave him sweets instead of actual meds and the guy comes back for a refill. It mocks the placebo effect and quite frankly reflects my personal experience with doctors who don’t consider it real. ‘Here take some paracetamol and ibuprofen and… good luck?’ You may as well give me sweets, they taste better.”
“I heard a lot about fibromyalgia on ‘House.’ I loved the show to that point, but hearing House degrade fibromyalgia sufferers and insist that my pain is made up… Honestly, it destroyed me. It is awful to know that so many people actually believe that fibromyalgia is a lie even though it is an official ICD classified disease,” Mikki Ingram told us.
2. “Haters Back Off”
The Netflix series “Haters Back Off” featured a character who claimed to have “undiagnosed fibromyalgia.” Miranda’s mom, Bethany (Angela Kinsey), frequently tells people she has undiagnosed fibromyalgia, wears wrist braces (despite the fact that fibromyalgia generally includes all-over body pain), talks about having fibromyalgia so she doesn’t have to lift heavy boxes at work and gets sympathy from the man she’s dating due to her condition. Ultimately, though, Bethany reveals she has a kidney condition.
Maria Tydd said, “The only time I’ve ever seen fibro portrayed aside from ‘House’ is in ‘Haters Back Off’ where her arm brace-wearing mom tells everyone about her ‘undiagnosed fibromyalgia’ and it’s kind of used as a shorthand for the fact that she’s lazy and/or a hypochondriac. She was later found to have something like kidney disease for emotional effect like ‘oh, it’s OK guys, she has a real illness, you can all feel sorry for her now.’ I enjoyed the show, I just don’t like real illnesses being used as a byword for ‘this person isn’t really ill so they made an illness up.’”
“Fibromyalgia is featured on the TV show ‘Haters Back Off!’ The mom says she has it, acting like every little thing hurts her, but it is obvious she’s a hypochondriac (it says so in the character description). It’s horrible to use fibromyalgia for this because we are constantly considered hypochondriacs when we are seriously in pain,” wrote Danielle Petilli.
3. “The Healer”
The TLC show “The Healer” features “energy healer” Charlie Goldsmith and chronicles his efforts to treat patients living with chronic conditions. In episode two of the first season, Goldsmith visits “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Kyle Richards who is seeking alternative treatment for her fibromyalgia. He asked Richards to close her eyes while he focused his energy on her biggest pain spots, her neck and shoulders. Richards said she felt a warm, tingling sensation going through that area.
4. “Criminal Minds”
In season 10, episode four of “Criminal Minds,” the Behavioral Analysis Unit is searching for a suspect they believe to have delusional parasitosis, which causes him to believe he is infested by bugs. The team hypothesizes that the suspect spends time around others who support and believe him, rather than dismiss his concerns as “all in the head,” so Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) asks their technical analyst, Penelope Garcia, to check for local support groups for “debated and controversial diseases.” He then specifies fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, recurrent Lyme disease and Morgellons.
Arria Deepwater explained, “Once an episode of Criminal Minds was focusing on a real psychological disorder, delusional parasitosis. While referring to it, one of the lead characters lumped it in with ‘other controversial or delusional diseases’ like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and recurrent Lyme disease. In fact, every time I ever hear CFS referred to in the news it is tagged with the label ‘controversial diagnosis.’”
In the first episode of the second season, “Grumpy Old Liv,” Liv Moore (Rose McIver) and her friend Ravi, a medical examiner, investigate the death of a 77-year-old man named Wendell Gale. At the crime scene, Wendell’s sister-in-law arrives and reveals that Wendell was not well liked in the community, as he had been a “cantankerous son of a b*tch for the last 30 years.” Liv asks what happened 30 years ago, and the sister-in-law explains that was when the fibromyalgia set in. “He went on disability, became embittered. His wife left him, took the two kids with her,” she says.
“iZombie showed a really old cranky man with fibromyalgia who constantly yelled at young people and was racist due to his condition and had isolated himself from the world in contempt and lived in squalor,” said Zoë Peat. “To say the least I was a little upset as I’m 19 years old, and not a hermit who hates people. Yes, I cannot do as much as other people or go out as much but I’m not like how they portrayed him.”
6. “The Dr. Oz Show”
In a December 2015 episode called “Pain Pain Go Away: Do You Have Fibromyalgia,” Dr. Oz speaks with Dr. Jennifer Caudle, a physician who had been treating fibromyalgia patients for nearly 10 years. In one segment, Dr. Caudle explains how everyday pain or exhaustion is different than fibromyalgia. She describes the constellation of symptoms a person with fibromyalgia may experience, including widespread pain, fatigue and brain fog, and how doctors believe fibro pain is a result of “abnormal pain processing.”
In a second segment, Dr. Oz and Dr. Caudle share an at-home questionnaire you can use to get an idea of whether you might have fibromyalgia. There are two questions: 1) the number of pain points you have and 2) if you have overlapping symptoms. Dr. Caudle goes on to describe several of the treatments available for fibromyalgia, including FDA-approved medications and lifestyle changes.
In season two, episode 11 of “Glee,” Coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) is planning out the routine her cheerleaders (“Sue’s Cheerios”) will do for the regional cheerleading competition. She wants to fire one of the cheerleaders, Brittany, out of a cannon, but needs her to sign a consent form. Coach Sylvester pressures her into doing so by asking her to remember that the cannon has “two little baby twin cannons at home, and one more on the way. And if you refuse to sign this, well, those little baby cannons might just go hungry. And the momma cannon, she has fibromyalgia so she can’t work. Do you want us to win, or don’t you?” Brittany proceeds to sign the contract.
8. “This Morning”
Jade Smith is a woman with fibromyalgia who cosplays as a china doll to cope with her fibromyalgia pain. She was interviewed on “This Morning” where she explained that she was diagnosed at age 5, then began dressing as a doll at age 11 after discovering the trend at an anime cosplay convention. “It makes me feel happy and helps distract me when I’m in pain,” Smith said. “It’s a really good relief because there’s no cure and most pain medications don’t work for it. My only hope is that they find a cure eventually.”
Kelly Wilkins told us, “I saw an interview with a woman on daytime TV show ‘This Morning.’ She dressed in doll-like clothing to take her mind off her pain. While I completely get that she’s found her comfort in dressing up, I found that the interview didn’t cover the illness properly and many assumptions were made. It also felt like it was trivialized a bit.”
Contributor Sophia Dayne-Eccleston also wrote a powerful essay addressing those who judge Smith for cosplaying. “I know what some people may be thinking,” she says. “With so much pain, a fibro patient shouldn’t be able to do all this, right? That simply isn’t true. Yes, dressing up is painful and yes it is fatiguing. But it can give us something infinitely precious: The will to keep fighting and keep hoping.”
9. “Face Off”
Nicole Chilelli has fibromyalgia and was the season three winner of “Face Off,” a SyFy show where special effects makeup artists compete to win a grand prize. She was open about her illness on the show and hoped to use her cash prize to help care for her mother, who also has fibromyalgia. In an interview with The Fibro Show, Chilelli said that doing makeup helps distract her and take her out of the mental state of thinking about what her body is doing. She gets so fully involved in the creative process that she doesn’t focus as much on the pain.
“There was a season of ‘Face Off’ a few years ago where the girl who won the competition talked about her fibromyaliga,” said Shani Bane. “It was so refreshing to see that as a younger person.”
10. “Dr. Phil”
In a March 2014 episode, Dr. Phil shares the story of Crystal – a woman with fibromyalgia who struggles with chronic pain and fatigue, and is experiencing marital issues as a result. “I don’t feel like I’m really living. I feel like I’m existing,” Crystal says. Dr. Phil also speaks with Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall, the Chief Medical Officer of Pfizer, who talks about the symptoms of fibro and offers tips to families of those with the condition.