By Becca Newell // Additional research by Chelsea Hanson
We’ve all heard tales of prescription errors and surgery on the wrong body part, but there’s something not as widely discussed that exceeds the prevalence of those mishaps: the misdiagnosis of a condition. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of cases are misdiagnosed annually. Here are five of the most common conditions to fall under this category.
1. Lyme Disease.
Although the tell-tale signs of this tickborne illness are widely recognized—a tick bite followed by a rash and flu-like symptoms—they closely resemble symptoms of other illnesses, like chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis. It’s crucial for Lyme disease to be caught in its early stages, which makes misdiagnosis particularly frightening. If you suspect you are infected, request testing. Current technology, however, sometimes has difficulty detecting the bacteria that signifies one has contracted Lyme—some patients test negative despite being infected and others inaccurately test positive. Additionally, Lyme can be mistaken for other, more lethal tick-transmitted diseases, like the Powassan virus. If you remove a tick from the skin, be sure to keep it for later examination by your doctor.
2. Parkinson’s Disease.
Symptoms of this incurable illness include tremors, muscle stiffness, impaired balance, loss of automatic movements, and speech changes—all of which are shared by other movement disorders like multiple system atrophy and Lewy-body disease. It’s important that patient’s undergo brain imaging studies or laboratory testing to confirm or refute the presence of a disorder other than Parkinson’s. However, there isn’t yet a test available to diagnose Parkinson’s with certainty, which is why frequent reevaluations during the early phase will help to rule out other conditions and, inevitably, establish an effective treatment plan.
3. Pulmonary Embolism.
Correctly diagnosing PE—a blood clot in the lungs—remains challenging, particularly when symptoms, like chest pains, lightheadedness, and a fast heart rate, aren’t accompanied by fainting—or, as it’s often called, a syncope. Additionally, diagnosing PE can be particularly difficult for those with a history of asthma, a heart condition, or high blood pressure. A 2015 study concluded that a misdiagnosis was less likely to occur in patients that had no risk factors of cardiac diseases and whose pre-diagnosis period lasted for more than a week.
4. Celiac Disease.
There are numerous digestive disorders—from Crohn’s disease to anemia—with symptoms similar to Celiac disease. The autoimmune disorder, in which the small intestine is damaged when gluten is ingested, can lead to other complications, including osteoporosis, infertility, and intestinal cancer, if left untreated. Common symptoms include pain in the abdomen or joints, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and malnutrition. There are several types of testing available—serology testing, which looks for elevated levels of certain antibodies in the blood; endoscopy, in which a doctor views the small intestine and performs a biopsy; and capsule endoscopy, where the patient swallows a vitamin-sized capsule with a camera inside that transmits thousands of pictures to a recorder as it travels through the digestive tract—that help to determine the prevalence of Celiac. Genetic testing is also available and might be necessary if blood results are negative, but a biopsy indicates damage to the small intestine. Other reasons to undergo genetic testing: if the disease hasn’t responded to a gluten-free diet or if a gluten-free diet was initiated before a blood test for Celiac was performed.
Despite being the second most common musculoskeletal condition (osteoarthritis is number one), fibromyalgia is often misdiagnosed. Symptoms include widespread pain and fatigue—along with other conditions, like headaches, sensitivity to temperature, light, and noise, and irritable bowel syndrome—which could suggest multiple illnesses, such as sleep apnea, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. Typically, fibromyalgia can be diagnosed by a physical exam—patients with the disease have chronic pain (lasting more than three months) with no evident cause and multiple “tender points” on their body that are painful when pressure is applied. EpiGenetics established a blood test for fibromyalgia that is 95 percent accurate, according to their research. However, the Mayo Clinic suggested more research is needed to measure its effectiveness.
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