‘Feels like dying’: Israel leads world by recognizing sorrow of chronic pain

Israel now categorizing fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as a disability; patients say it sets an important example to health policymakers internationally

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image : a man suffering from severe pain (Aleksej Sarifulin  via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image : a man suffering from severe pain (Aleksej Sarifulin via iStock by Getty Images)

Israel has just taken one of the boldest steps of any country in recognizing two debilitating medical conditions that have often been dismissed as a figment of patients’ imagination.

Fibromyalgia causes widespread pain along with a host of other symptoms, and Israel’s National Insurance Institute is now to recognize it as a disability, an unusual step internationally. Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen announced on Tuesday that approval for the recognition is complete.

In the final protocol just released by the National Insurance Institute, the rights are extended to sufferers of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), a related condition.

Beersheba in southern Israel is a renowned center of Fibromyalgia research because rockets from Gaza have triggered high rates of the condition. Experts there are convinced that Israel’s move will help to effect progress internationally.

“This is a pioneering development that will send a message encouraging other Western countries to do the same,” said rheumatologist Prof. Dan Buskila Beersheba’s Soroka University Medical Center and Ben Gurion University, a leading researcher on the condition.

“This is a breakthrough for a condition that doesn’t have clear biological markers and therefore attracts hostility from some in the medical community.”

Illustrative image: a woman gets a medical examination for chronic muscle pain (Ivan-Balvan via iStock by Getty Images)

Hillel Abrahams’ story is typical of many Israelis who are enthusiastically welcoming Israel’s decision on Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. For many years he lived with severe muscle pains that no doctor could explain. He found many doctors unsympathetic. “When the illness doesn’t suit their profile of illness they would tell me it’s all in the head,” he recalled.

Hillel Abrahams (courtesy of Hillel Abrahams)

Now, he gets through the day with the help of opioids and other drugs, after a diagnosis two years ago for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and as some symptoms also reflect those of fibromyalgia, expects to soon have a diagnosis for both illnesses.

He said that Israel’s decision gives long-needed “validation” to people like him who have sometimes been led to doubt the genuineness of their plight. The absence of clear physical symptoms confuses others and can arouse skepticism, he said.

“People can seem normal for hours,” said Abrahams, a father and grandfather from Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem. “You can go out, do something, come back and be exhausted for hours upon end. It is the kind of exhaustion that means you can’t even move out of bed.

“I can’t think straight. I have brain fog and can forget names. There can be severe headaches and neck aches. Sometimes I feel like I’m dying. I have felt at times that I was getting sicker and sicker. It’s difficult to work because you can’t think straight and can’t do your job. It’s like having the worst possible case of flu but without the fever.”

Abrahams believes that Israel’s move will help break a stigma that lingers around Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, fibromyalgia, and other illnesses that don’t have clear physical manifestations. “This provides recognition for pain that’s so severe you have no idea,” he said. “People think ‘Oh , so and so didn’t want to go to work,’ but these are actually very serious illnesses.”

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