A common misconception related to any illness is that it has physical and evident medical findings. This is often a source of stigma for women (and men) who experience medical conditions that do not present with obvious physical symptoms. While these individuals appear to be healthy, under the surface they are suffering through a plethora of symptoms which can range from pain, cramps, fatigue and any range of mental health concerns. 

There are more than a dozen conditions that can be categorised as an invisible illness. A few common and familiar names include chronic fatigue syndrome, PCOS, hypothyroidism, diabetes, lupus and mental health conditions. 

The Path of Uncertainty

On the long journey to diagnosis, many women have to go through a series of rigorous testing and jump from one specialist to another in order to receive a diagnosis. There is frequently difficulty with articulating symptoms as well. A case of hypothyroidism can present with fatigue and irregular periods, whereas other women with hypothyroidism can report excessive weight gain and lethargy. Mood disorders such as depression are also deeply intertwined with a medical condition such as hypothyroidism.

Keeping this in mind, it is possible for a woman to have been prescribed a series of antidepressants and oral contraceptives, without a single test being done, just to treat specific symptoms. When tests are finally done, it is possible for women to have already undergone several months of fatigue, weight gain and lethargy. 

Another fact to consider is that several medical conditions can overlap in symptoms.

Weight gain, acne, and lethargy are also a few of the signs of PCOS. And some of the signs of PCOS such as pelvic pain, bloating and painful sex can overlap with endometriosis. And each condition has been linked with mental health concerns, which amplify during the period of uncertain diagnosis. 

A Gendered Perspective

When reporting signs and symptoms to their physicians, women struggle with receiving acceptance. Women have often been brushed aside and told that a lot of what they experience is “in your head.” Physicians are known to stigmatise women as making excuses for something that might seem trivial initially. 

Even within workspaces, women who start out mentioning that they have a possible invisible illness, are always viewed as being unproductive or incapable of handling the day to day grind. With this gendered view, women are often forced into silence. They have to power through underlying physical and mental illnesses just to receive equal opportunities within their work environment.

To add to this twisted dilemma, women are often rendered unsolicited advice for their health concerns. The basic ones include changing their diet, altering sleep patterns and opting for alternative healing therapies. 

A Ray of Hope

Today many women are speaking up about their experiences with an invisible illness. Doctors are more open to understanding the nuances of medical conditions that only present with a few obscure symptoms. 

A few shifts that can be made is towards creating more awareness about conditions that do not have definitive symptoms. Today more women are aware of hypothyroidism, PCOS and endometriosis. Therefore, reporting of symptoms takes place earlier than later. 

Another key aspect to consider is maximising gender inclusivity within workspaces. With limited women in key roles, such conditions are rarely brought to the forefront. A workplace with more women empowers other women to speak more openly about their health conditions. This, in turn, increases the spread of awareness and makes working schedules more accommodating and increase overall productivity levels.

So, What Can One Do?

All medical ailments do not have tangible symptoms. Something like pain is a subjective term, however, it can be associated with a wide array of medical conditions. Today a mental health condition can also present with something as simple as pain. Breaking down the barriers and diving deep into the complexities of pain can help physicians narrow down a possible mental health diagnosis. 

When you feel something is amiss, discussing it with your primary care physician is crucial. If one will not take you seriously or will dismiss you, opt for another specialist. Aim to be comprehensive. Keep track of every medical note, provisional diagnosis, medical test and every symptom experienced. This helps to paint a clearer picture for the next medical professional. 

A lot of the medical illnesses that affect women are still in their infancy stages of research. A key driving force would be persistence and endurance to give invisible illness a spotlight. Finally, it is important to TALK about what you are experiencing. You never know who might be going on a similar journey as you are.


  • Dr Michelle Frank

    Director: Women's Health, SHEROES

    A Doctor of Medicine by degree and certified by the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, Dr. Michelle Frank is currently the Director of Women's Health for the all-women platform SHEROES. She coordinates women’s health on three women-centric platforms, SHEROES Health, Babygogo, and Maya.  Most of her work is focused on menstrual health, reproductive health, sexual health and general wellbeing for women. She is a strong advocate for women’s health in all its domains.