Morgellons disease: Joni Mitchell's mystery illness

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published October 13, 2017

Key Takeaways

Legendary folk singer/songwriter and icon of the late '60s, Joni Mitchell—now 73—doesn’t get out much anymore. In recent years, Mitchell has been plagued by health problems, including a stroke, post-polio health issues, and Morgellons disease, a rare, controversial, and mysterious condition.

In a new biography, "Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell," by David Yaffe, Mitchell reveals that sometimes she cannot wear clothing because she feels as if she were being “eaten alive.” Morgellons disease has left her largely confined to her house.

But what is Morgellons disease? It is classified as a dermopathy distinguished by multicolored, fiber-like filaments occurring either under, in, or projecting from the skin; sores; and crawling sensations.

Clinicians have varying attitudes towards Morgellons disease. Some do not acknowledge it as a disease, while others believe it is a specific condition that needs to be confirmed by solid research. Still others believe that its signs and symptoms are caused by another condition, such as mental illness.

According to the CDC, the signs and symptoms of Morgellons disease, or MD, are “very similar to those of a mental illness involving false beliefs and infestation by parasites (delusional parasitosis).” CDC researchers have concluded, after studying samples of skin, blood, urine, and hair, that Morgellons disease is not caused by infection or parasites.

Other researchers have suggested a link between Morgellons disease and infection with Borrelia spirochetes. According to a review published in 2016 in the International Journal of General Medicine, “Spirochetes genetically identified as Borrelia burgdorferi sensu stricto predominate as the infective agent in most of the Morgellons skin specimens studied so far. Other species of Borrelia including Borrelia garinii, Borrelia miyamotoi, and Borrelia hermsii have also been detected in skin specimens taken from MD patients.”

Signs and symptoms of Morgellons disease include:

  • Skin rashes or sores that can cause intense itching;
  • Crawling sensations on and under the skin, similar to insects moving, stinging or biting;
  • Fibers, threads or black stringy materials in and on the skin;
  • Severe fatigue;
  • Aerobic limitation; and
  • CNS symptoms, including cognitive dysfunction, emotional changes, brain fog, difficulty concentrating, and short-term memory loss

Today, there are more than 10,000 known cases of Morgellons disease in the world, most of them situated in the United States. Also known is that Morgellons occurs most often in middle-aged white women. A large cluster of patients reside in California, and according to, “Although California represents 12% of the US population, 26% of all who have registered with the Morgellons Research Foundation reside in California.” Researchers have not yet discovered why.

Unfortunately for Joni Mitchell and thousands of others, the effects of Morgellons disease are debilitating, no matter the cause.

For more information, go to:
Morgellons Research Foundation:
The Charles E. Holman Morgellons Disease Foundation:

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