Woman's Mystery Illness Diagnosed by Stranger on Internet

A woman who suffered from a mystery illness that made it difficult to eat for over a year thinks she has finally been diagnosed after someone reached out to her on Facebook.

Annie Marshall, 20, from England, first began experiencing symptoms in March, 2020, following some food poisoning.

"I was in lots of pain every time I ate which increased to the point where two mouthfuls of food would make me so ill that I would be in bed for the rest of the day," Marshall told U.K. newspaper the Mirror.

Estimates on the number of people living with digestive issues in the U.S. vary. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases states 60 to 70 million people are affected by all digestive diseases in the country. The CDC estimates 37 million people visited their physician about digestive diseases in 2018.

In an effort to find out what was wrong with her, Marshall visited multiple doctors—one of whom suggested that she was suffering from the eating disorder anorexia after an MRI scan did not reveal anything. Marshall was sure that was not the case.

A year passed and Marshall's illness persisted. In March 2021 a doctor told her he thought she was suffering from gastroparesis, a condition that affects the normal movement of stomach muscles.

"It's like your stomach is paralysed," Marshall said, per the Mirror. "The doctor said it was the worst he'd ever seen it and couldn't believe no one had tested me sooner."

With the diagnosis, Marshall, now desperate and losing weight every week, contacted a doctor in Texas who specialized in stomach surgery. She flew out with her mom and had a keyhole surgery that she hoped would help.

However, a couple of months later it became apparent that the surgery had not alleviated her symptoms. "[The doctor] was confused as everyone else who had the surgery had so much success—physically my gastric emptying had sped up but all my symptoms were still there," Marshall said.

Woman holding stomach
A stock photo shows a woman holding her stomach as though in pain. A U.K. woman's stomach issues were reportedly diagnosed after someone reached out to her on Facebook. Krisanapong Detraphiphat/Getty

At this point, Marshall vented her feelings on a gastroparesis Facebook group, where a woman contacted her and suggested she might have Median Arcuate Ligament Syndrome (MALS). The woman, who lived in the U.S., said she had been a nurse for 20 years.

MALS is a condition that results when the median arcuate ligament pushes too tightly on the celiac artery which delivers blood to the stomach and other organs, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This can cause stomach pain after eating and lead to weight loss and a delay in the stomach moving food into the small intestine. Its cause is poorly understood.

Since its symptoms are vague, the Mayo Clinic states it may take some time to get an accurate diagnosis—as in Marshall's case.

MALS is described as a rare condition by the U.S. Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center, which does not put an estimate on the number of people affected by it. The Cleveland Clinic states that it mostly occurs in thin, younger women.

Treatment can include surgery to relieve the pressure on the artery caused by the median arcuate ligament.

After researching the condition and finding the symptoms to be similar to her own, Marshall had an ultrasound for MALS which came back positive. Marshall said: "They have to be quite thorough and have to exclude everything else as it is so rare," the Mirror reports.

As part of a diagnostic test, Marshall was given a steroid injection after which she was able to eat perfectly normally for several hours—a sign that surgery would help.

After reaching out to a Connecticut-based MALS surgeon, the 20-year-old is now expecting to have surgery for her condition in July.