Once upon a time, women were routinely given a diagnosis of hysteria to explain many of their medical ills. This was particularly true if the symptoms were vague, infrequent or were accompanied by psychological distress. Although diagnosis of disease in women has come a long way since then, there are still some instances that hark back to those days. Symptoms in women are still falsely attributed to the rigors of everyday life – work, overscheduled calendars, and caring for family and home.
But sometimes a diagnosis is flat-out wrong.
The Diagnostic Road More or Less Traveled
Arriving at a correct diagnosis depends on many things – what a patient reports, what tests reveal and what the doctor observes. Patients need to describe symptoms accurately and doctors need to interpret them correctly. That can be problematic at times since language barriers, cultural differences, medical knowledge and personality can all influence how a complaint is described.
Symptoms of a disease may not be the same in everyone. They can be silent, vague or atypical. And occasionally they mimic or hide behind other diseases. Couple that with the number of potential diagnoses that can be attributed to a single sign or symptom, and you wonder how a correct diagnosis is reached at all.
Knitting symptoms into a correct diagnosis can be complex. It is part art and part science. Mostly, doctors get it right, but sometimes they are way off course. A combination of factors – a mistake in the medical system or a flaw in reasoning – can cause a doctor to prematurely commit to a diagnosis or pick the wrong one entirely. And that can have serious consequences.
Here are 3 instances where symptoms were misinterpreted – and misdiagnosed.
Symptoms: Dizziness, loss of leg control and vomiting
The Initial Diagnosis: Labyrinthitis, an inner ear condition that causes severe vertigo.
The Actual Diagnosis: Stroke, a blood clot that gets lodged in the brain. A brain attack, as strokes are often called, produces different symptoms depending on where the clot affects the brain, and in turn, affects muscle control, speech, vision and balance. Misdiagnosing a stroke can be deadly because one stroke puts you at risk for another and early clot-busting treatment can reduce the aftereffects.
Symptoms: Unrelenting fatigue, weight gain, lethargy, irregular periods, cold sensitivity, hair loss and brittle nails.
The Initial Diagnosis: Perimenopause and depression.
The Actual Diagnosis: Hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid gland that doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone. Misdiagnosing hypothyroidism can lead to heart disease, high LDL (bad) cholesterol, infertility, birth defects and depression. Click here for more information on hypothyroidism.
Symptoms: After a C-section delivery, high blood pressure, swollen legs, and tightness/pain in the chest.
The Initial Diagnosis: Hypertension following pregnancy.
The Actual Diagnosis: Aortic dissection, a weakening in wall of the largest blood vessel exiting the heart, creating a false channel of blood that can eventually tear under high pressure and stress. Misdiagnosing aortic dissection can lead to multiple organ failure, stroke, hemorrhage and death.
To help prevent a misstep in your medical diagnosis you need to be an active and persistent participant in your care. Follow this advice the next time you are heading to the doctor.
- Do your homework. Although there is a risk you may get more confused if you do too much research before you see your doctor, reading about your symptoms beforehand may trigger something you shrugged off as unimportant.
- Organize your thoughts. Do this before you go to the doctor so you don't leave anything out when you are face-to-face. Take notes and bring them with you.
- Report all your symptoms. Symptoms can help clarify or rule out a diagnosis, so include everything even if you think it is unrelated.
- Describe your symptoms in detail. This is the what, where, when, how often deal. Your doctor will want to know when symptoms occur, when they go away, what makes you feel better and what makes you feel worse. If you have pain, use the right word to describe it. Is it stabbing, dull, or does it only occur when you do certain things.
- Be honest. This is not the time to leave anything out so if you have undesirable lifestyle habits you need to fess up. It can offer important clues to your condition.
- Go with your gut. If you are feeling like your complaints are being dismissed or ignored or not interpreted properly go to another doctor. Simple as that.
- Get a second opinion. Doctors actually don't mind when you do this. In fact, they expect it.
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