Weirdest made-up medical conditions

Talking about medical conditions can be terrifying. There's no shortage of horrible diseases you can develop, and there's plenty of disfiguring, painful ways you can suffer before dying a horrible death. We're not here to talk about those things. We're here to talk about the insane, stupid, and absurd diseases you won't believe people actually worried about, and we can guarantee you'll never develop any of them. Why? Because they're all completely fictitious, made up by people who needed to further their own agenda for reasons that are diabolical, selfish, and in one case, noble.

Bicycle face

If you're going to come up with a condition that's meant to terrify the bejesus out of people, at least come up with a great name. Bicycle face might be completely lacking in that department, and you can thank—we think—a British doctor named A. Shadwell for his lack of creativity. 

Shadwell had other things on his mind, though, and that was coming up with a condition to discourage women from hopping on these new-fangled gizmos called bicycles and pedaling their way to independence. The advent of the bicycle allowed women new freedoms, encouraged physical activity, and even changed the way they dressed, and clearly, the world couldn't be having any of that nonsense.

According to Vox, male doctors spent a good part of the 1890s preaching about bicycle face. The condition was characterized (variously) by a flushed or pale face, a perpetually drawn and exhausted expression, dark shadows, a clenched jaw, and bulging eyes. Causes varied, and while some doctors claimed it was the physical effort of riding or balancing a bike, others said it was brought down by a God that's mad at people for violating the Sabbath. By the end of the decade, some revolutionary free-thinkers were writing about how bicycle face wasn't as much of a thing as they'd been claiming after all, but rumors continued for decades afterwards. Women still pedaled away, bulging eyes be damned.


If you've ever bought any product that advertises it's only purpose is to make your breath fresher, then congratulations, you've bought into a made-up medical condition. Let's go back to the 1880s for this one, and the invention of Listerine. At the time, it was a prescription medication used to prevent infections from developing in wounds. If you've ever had a tooth pulled, you know how difficult it can be to keep infection out of your mouth, and it turned out Listerine was great at it. 

According to io9, that's when things started to get a bit out of hand. Listerine's owners wanted to sell more product, and that's legit. What's not legit is that they invented a disease called halitosis, and lauded their product as the cure.

Halitosis wasn't just bad breath, it was a Condition with a capital "C". The only way to fight it—and avoid any social embarrassments that went along with it—was to use some wound antiseptic in your mouth. People did, and before you laugh, remember we still do. That's marketing genius.

Overactive bladder

Buying into made-up medical conditions isn't just something our silly ancestors did, either. Let's try an experiment—all you need to do is think about how often you find yourself heading off for a bathroom break. We're not talking about the ones you go on to get away from work, we're talking about a legitimate need to pee. Three times a day? Four? Twelve? In 2001, the answers people gave during a telephone survey helped create a condition called overactive bladder and, at the time, about 33 million Americans were diagnosed with it.

Who's doing this diagnosing, you might ask. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the condition was defined by two university urologists, and then presented at medical conferences sponsored by the drug companies pushing their cures for overactive bladder. Convenient, right?

This isn't just a harmless push to sell some pills, either. Investigations have found the drugs prescribed to treat overactive bladder have been linked to almost 200 deaths between 2013 and 2016, and that's insane. The FDA has gotten more than 12,000 complaints about the drugs, and seriously—if you find yourself needing to pee a lot, just think of it as a legitimate excuse to get away from your desk for a few minutes.


Let's apologize straight away, because this is going to get a little offensive. What else would you expect, though, from a condition invented to explain why a slave would want to run away from his or her master?

It was called drapetomania, and PBS says it was defined by Dr. Samuel Cartwright from the University of Louisiana. When he wrote up his 19th century profile of drapetomania, he called it "a disease of the mind" that was easily avoidable and curable if plantation owners and overseers would just treat their slaves in the way God wanted. That involved kindness…but not too much kindness, and definitely not letting them think they were equals—that was just asking for problems. Warning signs that a slave was developing a case of drapetomania included a "sulky and dissatisfied" personality, and if your slave was that, he or she was slipping into what Cartwright called "the negro consumption."

Whatever you do, he said, you probably shouldn't try to whip it out of them. Instead, treat your slave kindly, give them clothes, fuel for a fire, and allow each family their own home. He then claimed they'll "fall into that submissive state which it was intended for them to occupy in all after-time." And that all proves just because something is tradition, that doesn't make it right.

Dysaethesia Aethiopica

Good ol' Dr. Samuel Cartwright took a shot at creating another medical condition to explain why a slave might want to cause trouble for his owners, too, and he called this one dysaethesia aethiopica. According to his article "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race" (via PBS), dysaethesia aethiopica was characterized by both mental and physical symptoms that included laziness, drowsiness, an insensitivity of the skin, and seeming to be invulnerable to the pain of a punishment. 

There were behavioral problems, too, things like stealing, breaking equipment, abusing animals, and cutting up the crops they were tending "as if for pure mischief." He said it was much more noticeable among free men who didn't have someone to keep them on the straight-and-narrow path, out of the drink, and focused on their work, but that improperly treated slaves could show signs of it, too.

Cartwright claimed the disease was "universal among free negroes" and said while northern abolitionists wrongly attributed these issues to the lasting effects of slavery, he believed they were just all born with this condition. Cartwright? Cartwright was born a condition called Being a Racist Jerk.

Female hysteria

Whoever first came up with the idea of female hysteria probably had no idea that we'd be thinking this was an actual thing for somewhere around 4,000 years…give or take. According to research done by historians at the University of Cagliari in Italy, the idea seems to have started with an ancient Egyptian belief written about in 1900 BC, and it was only removed from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in 1980. Given this massive time frame, it's not surprising there's a whole list of symptoms attributed to female hysteria, including seizures and a feeling of imminent death in ancient Egypt to possession by the Devil in the Middle Ages to the pretty loose definition of a "disturbance of function" that can't be explained by a definite, physical condition in the 19th century.

Basically, any woman who couldn't be neatly fit into society's accepted definition of how a woman should act could be called hysterical, and that's exactly how it was used. Women weren't intelligent, liberated, or their own individual person…they were sick.

Treatments varied just as much as the symptoms, and ranged from prescription herbs and exorcisms to genital massage. You might think you know where this one's going, and you're right. According to The Conversation, treatment included the development of an electrical device for exactly that sort of thing, and it became the modern vibrator. We find inspiration in the weirdest places sometimes.


There's no kind of alcohol that's quite as misunderstood—and vilified— s absinthe. According to the story, absinthe contained enough thujone to cause hallucinations and drive people mad, and it was banned. It wasn't true at all, but in the 19th century absinthe haters made up a medical condition to prove their point about just how bad for you absinthe was, and they called it absinthism.

There was a series of so-called studies done throughout the 1800s, and according to research published by BioMed Central, the studies claimed absinthism was characterized by seizures and hallucinations leading to brain damage, oesophageal cancer, and an increased risk for suicide. There were also citations of softening of the brain, psychosis, paralysis, delirium, and "hallucination insanity" which is exactly what you think it is, and it's no wonder people were terrified of it. Much of the supporting evidence came from some horrible experiments where animals were injected with pure wormwood, leading us to wonder just who the animal really is here.

Today, we can re-classify a lot of the symptoms of absinthism as belonging to chronic alcoholism. Absinthism was condemned as total BS by a portion of the population even in the mid-19th century, but haters gonna hate, especially when it comes to The Green Fairy.

Undeveloped ovaries and the other dangers of novel-reading

What's a better way to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon than absorbed in a good book? Sure, books are great now, but in the 19th century they were the source of all kinds of medical problems—especially for women. For real. Supposedly.

There was never any real name given to the problems developed by the chronic novel-reader, but everyone from medical professionals to education advocates wrote about just what would happen to the woman who spent too much time with her nose in a book and, presumably, getting all kinds of inappropriate ideas. History Buff compiled some of the accounts, and they include things like brain and eye damage, a degeneration of the nervous system, a so-called "female depravity", moral decay, and even an early death. Most troubling to these 19th-century doctors was the idea that there was all kind of energy being putting into reading these novels…energy that would have been better off being used by the reproductive system to stay healthy and fertile.

Read too much—especially when it was something like a mystery—and you could end up with underdeveloped ovaries. Keep reading, and it'd drive your poor little female brain absolutely batty. Sure, you might lose a few IQ points reading some YA paranormal romance, but insane? That might be going a little too far.

Alcohol-related spontaneous combustion

Sure, there's probably some things you still believe about alcohol that just aren't true, but what if we told you there was once an honest-to-gosh belief in the possibility that drinking too much would cause you to spontaneously combust? According to The Daily Beast, there were around 50 cases of alcohol-related spontaneous combustion recorded between 1725 and 1847, because hey, everyone has to go some way. 

Victims of spontaneous combustion were often reported to be alcoholics, and the rumor-mongers started spreading the idea that once ingested, alcohol would turn into some kind of flammable gas that would accumulate and eventually explode.

The cases were pretty convincing and extraordinarily graphic, like the story of a 180-pound woman who was reduced to 12 pounds of ash after downing a quart of whiskey and then going up in flames. Even Charles Dickens was a huge supporter of the theory, and wrote about it in Bleak House. If there was ever any real doubt (and there was), that didn't stop the Temperance Movement (via SUNY Potsdam) from picking up on the idea and adding it to their teachings as just one more reason alcohol was evil. They were following in the footsteps of a series of anti-liquor crusaders who said anyone who drank was courting a fiery death, and honestly, that's a chance we're willing to take.

Syndrome K

Not all made-up medical conditions were created to sell a product or persecute an entire group of people, and when an Italian doctor named Adriano Ossicini came up with the mysteriously-named Syndrome K, he did it to save lives.

According to Quartz, it started in 1943 when the Nazis began raiding areas around Rome's Jewish Ghetto. Families started fleeing their homes, and some headed to the Fatebenefratelli Hospital (pictured) on an island in the middle of the Tiber River. Entire families were quarantined in rooms, and according to their charts, they had contracted the deadly "Syndrome K" which doctors described as being highly contagious and a bit reminiscent of tuberculosis. "Patients" were told to make sure they coughed if any official-looking men came through. No German soldier was going to open a door to a room full of highly infectious patients, which is a good thing, because if they had bothered to check, they would have found perfectly healthy families who were being hidden from the almost certain death they would have found in Nazi concentration camps.

In 2016, the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation recognized the efforts of the hospital staff and named the sanctuary the House of Life. At the ceremony were several of the doctor's Syndrome K patients, including Luciana Tedesco, who said, "I think that there was no patient in this hospital. All the people I saw were healthy. We were refugees who found a home here."

Autistic enterocolitis

Andrew Wakefield is the discredited author behind a paper that first linked vaccines with autism. The retraction of the paper has been well documented, but in 2010 the BMJ took a look at part of his claims that weren't as widely condemned: the existence of something he called autistic enterocolitis. According to Wakefield and his supporters, this was a special kind of gastrointestinal disease only found in patients that had also been diagnosed with autism. Sounds questionable, doesn't it?

BMJ journalist Brian Deer says that's exactly what it is. It's well known that Wakefield's study was funded by solicitors looking for a link between vaccines and autism, and hey, that makes it super-convenient that's what he claimed to find. But they were also looking for a brain or bowel disorder that could also be linked to vaccines…and hey again, that's exactly what he claimed to find. Funny, how that works. Deer took a closer look at what hospital actually found, and as you might imagine, they were actually called "unexceptional" results. Conveniently, the original slides and samples weren't available, but a reinterpretation of the result found that everything was pretty normal.

What remains unclear is motive. Whether or not Wakefield committed some serious scientific fraud or if it was just a misinterpretation of the data, well, we'll leave that up to you to decide.

Wind turbine syndrome

You've probably heard of wind turbine syndrome, and it's a "medical" condition that supposedly originates from—not surprisingly—wind turbines. It's championed by entire groups who are campaigning against the development of the clean, renewable energy source that is wind power, and at the top of their list of reasons why this is scary is the idea that the low-frequency sounds emitted by the turbines are going to turn your innards to jelly.

According to the experts consulted by The Atlantic, there's a whole bunch of science-y reasons that's not going to happen, and we won't get into all of them. But we will say wind turbines have been blamed for everything from blurred vision, nausea, panic attacks, insomnia, and headaches, in spite of the fact that we're exposed to constant, low-frequency sounds all the darn time. We should also mention wind turbine syndrome first came from a pretty questionable source: a pediatrician named Nina Pierpont, who (Popular Science points out) is married to an anti-wind power activist. 

Popular Science also says not only are the symptoms all pretty much a normal part of being human, they also point out just what the power of suggestion can do. What about you? Right now, do you feel a little headachy? A little bit of mild nausea that wasn't even noticeable until someone mentioned it? Did you have trouble sleeping last night? You might have a syndrome…although, probably not, unless you count humanity and it is sort of contagious.