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Israel to recognize fibromyalgia, a chronic muscle pain illness, as a disability

Patients once sidelined by skeptical doctors now given right to claim state allowance; decision impacts many in south whose illness is thought to be brought on by Hamas rockets

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

A woman suffering from chronic muscle pain (iStock via Getty Images)
A woman suffering from chronic muscle pain (iStock via Getty Images)

Israel will recognize fibromyalgia, a once widely dismissed illness that involves chronic muscle pain, as a disability.

People with the condition will be recognized as disabled within a few weeks, and will be able to claim up to 40 percent of a full disability allowance, Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Meir Cohen announced on Tuesday.

The move makes Israel one of the first countries in the world to make such far-reaching provisions for fibromyalgia patients.

Fibromyalgia is characterized by chronic widespread pain, and in some cases physical exhaustion, cognitive difficulties, and a feeling that sleep does not alleviate tiredness. As such, it prevents many people from following a normal work routine.

Data from the Health Ministry and Asaf, the Israeli fibromyalgia association, suggests that some 4% of Israelis, or 240,000 people, are affected by fibromyalgia and its sibling condition, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

There has been a particular increase in cases in Israeli communities near the Gaza border, seemingly because the condition can be triggered by trauma.

Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, May 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Those suffering from fibromyalgia have often voiced frustration that, in the absence of physical symptoms that show up in blood tests or scans, medical professionals don’t take their condition seriously and authorities don’t support them financially.

Over the last decade, however, the existence of the condition has become more widely accepted among doctors, and now Israel’s National Insurance Institute has completed the two-year process of recognizing it as a disability.

“The reason that there is still no sweeping recognition of the disease is due to the fact that many doctors in the world believe that it is a mental disability,” the institute said in a statement

“The National Insurance Institute opposes this determination, and at the end of a professional examination by the institution’s doctors, the Legal Bureau and the Pension Division, it was decided that there is cause to add fibromyalgia to the list of conditions that determines social security allowances.”

Roni Rothler, director of the disability rights clinic at Bar Ilan University, told The Times of Israel that fibromyalgia patients “have struggled until now to have it recognized by authorities. This development will make people with fibromyalgia automatically recognized for disability stipends, which will enable them to take far better care of themselves,” she said.

“This move is also important because it provides clear recognition that what they have is real, because often people doubt this as the symptoms don’t show in blood tests and scans.”

Public health expert Alex Weinreb, research director at the Taub Center think tank, said that recognition of little-understood conditions is important in eliminating stigmas. “It’s good to be public about all sorts of medical conditions because when this doesn’t happen, they are stigmatized, which is not good,” he told The Times of Israel.

Rothler believes that the new recognition is important in terms of gender politics, as conditions that predominantly affect women are known to often trail in resources compared to conditions that heavily affect men. “What just happened is an important gender statement, as fibromyalgia affects many more women than men,” she said.

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