Diseases & Conditions

Invisible illness: More than meets the eye

Many people live with health conditions that can't be seen, but there are ways to ease the burden.

By , Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
  • Reviewed by Toni Golen, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing; Contributor

illustration of a woman under a dome, sitting with her arms around her knees, representing isolation

You've just parked your car when you notice someone pull into a nearby handicapped spot, pop out of her vehicle, and smoothly walk into the store. "What gives?" you may think. "She doesn't look sick!"

Chances are she has a condition that can't be seen by the naked eye. So-called invisible illnesses affect an estimated 10% of the 61 million Americans who deal with a physical or mental ailment that limits their movements or senses, according to the CDC. And while a quarter of American adults have a condition that can be considered a disability, only a fraction use visible supports such as a cane or wheelchair, meaning most don't appear disabled, according to a 2021 paper in the AMA Journal of Ethics.

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About the Author

photo of Maureen Salamon

Maureen Salamon, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Maureen Salamon is executive editor of Harvard Women’s Health Watch. She began her career as a newspaper reporter and later covered health and medicine for a wide variety of websites, magazines, and hospitals. Her work has … See Full Bio
View all posts by Maureen Salamon

About the Reviewer

photo of Toni Golen, MD

Toni Golen, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing; Contributor

Dr. Toni Golen is a physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, practicing in Boston. Dr. Golen completed her residency training at George Washington University Medical Center in 1995, and is an associate professor at Harvard Medical … See Full Bio
View all posts by Toni Golen, MD


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