Hidden in plain sight

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Yesterday I gave a presentation at the Nordic Ophtalmology meeting on the topic of weight loss in idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH). People with IIH have a large risk of going blind and they have frequent migraines, so treatment is obviously a priority. Patients are usually young women with obesity, and weight loss tends to result in drastic improvements of migraine frequency and strength for these patients, and they reduce their chances of sustaining permanent eye damage.

While the mechanisms for this debilitating disease are poorly understood, there is a clear link with obesity. But when the other speakers on the panel were speculating about why this disease develops no one hardly mentioned anything to do with environmental factors. Instead there was a very clear focus on biological risk factors, such as the increased mechanical pressure exerted by excess adipose tissue, anatomical factors, hormones and the like. While these factors can obviously be important they are likely to be a long way down the causal chain. 

When you consider than the vast majority of patients are young women with obesity, the things that come to my mind as potentially causal are a lot further up the potential causal chain, and include things like social pressures to be thin, body dissatisfaction, stigma, shame, childhood traumas, and stress. These, in turn, lead to drastic changes in inflammation, as well as substantial hormonal and metabolic changes, which could eventually trigger the intracranial hypertension. 

Personally, when it comes to obesity, I am very much leaning towards the environmental factors, specifically psychological and emotional factors/responses that we develop during the early years of our childhood as root causes of the disease. I would not be surprised if this applies to patients with idiopathic intracranial hypertension as well. That is why I think these patients can really benefit from a holistic treatment approach that includes things like weight loss, stress reduction, exercise, body acceptance, cognitive therapy, yoga, and mindfulness. 

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