The MUPS-Files

In which we discuss MUPS (which isn’t a puppy with a suspiciously lumpy neck)

There’s a basement under the Great Hall of Diagnosis. It’s never talked about and the basement door can only be reached by traversing the myriad doors and corridors of the upper floors, with their neat, rectangular, printed labels (Erythromelalgia – Gonorrhea – Vitiligo – Yellow Fever – Ichthyosis).

The label on the basement door is handwritten with an attempt to look authoritative – right up until the writer realised they were running out of space and the letters began to get smaller and smaller:

‘Medically Unexplained Physical Symptoms (MUPS)’

Underneath, on a scrappier piece of paper, someone else has scrawled in blobby biro,

‘Welcome to the X-Files’

The basement’s occupants are numerous and varied. Every time medical testing fails to allocate a condition to one of the more reputable rooms above, it gets dumped in the basement.

The patient, meanwhile, receives the good/bad news that there isn’t a diagnosis. On the one hand, you’re not dying more quickly than you ought to be, as far as medical science can tell. On the other hand, we can’t find a reason for those physical symptoms, so we can’t treat them.

The unfortunate subtext is that there isn’t a real reason for the symptoms. There’s a sneaking suggestion that the cause of the symptoms is something psychological rather than physical, of the mind rather than the body.

The mind is a product of the body, of course, and undoubtedly can induce and influence the body’s behaviour. And yet it seems curious that this is the only explanation given weight. There is rarely any mention of the possibility that medical science might develop and learn more, and eventually figure out that there is a determinable cause for some of these conditions.

Conditions like Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue are finally making the journey from the MUPS basement to newly decorated rooms with printed labels on the floors above. Evidence has been found and explanations have been developed following extensive research. Medicine is acknowledging that there is something real to find out about, and is finally validating the experience of all those people who were told it was in their minds.

On two occasions, I’ve been the patient listening to a consultant say they can’t find anything wrong. On both occasions, I nod, and silence falls. I wait for a suggestion of a next step, a new test or another referral, but their benign smiles remain impossibly fixed. I begin to feel flutters of frantic panic, a desperation for something, anything to hold on to, a gasp of hope. They give me nothing.

I wonder if they’re waiting for me to say the words for them, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ and see myself out. I eventually received a ‘Good luck’ from one of them, but it tasted bitter in its emptiness.

Being designated to the MUPS basement leaves you unlabelled, open to the slow erosion of society’s slurs for those who lack a medically approved stamp: lazy, attention seeking, hysterical, weak, a drain on resources.

I’d like to get out of the basement one day.

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