The 7 Diseases Doctors Almost Always Fail to Diagnose
Ever experience an odd pain, notice a strange rash or feel tired for no reason? You probably went to the doctor looking for answers. But physicians can have just as much difficulty pinpointing a medical condition as their untrained patients do.
Do You Have One of These Easily Misdiagnosed Diseases?
Faced by an inexplicable set of symptoms, many doctors don’t just throw up their hands and admit to ignorance. Instead, they misdiagnose, leaving unsuspecting patients burdened by ineffective medical treatments while their true conditions go unaddressed.
If you haven’t been misdiagnosed yet, you will be in the future. At least that’s what the Institute of Medicine found, in a report estimating that the majority of Americans will be on the receiving end of at least one diagnostic error within their lifetimes.
Chances are, that error will involve one of these 7 diseases that are notoriously difficult to diagnose.
1. Celiac Disease
When they’re not dismissing its existence outright, physicians are still becoming aware of celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that damages miniature folds in intestinal walls and disrupts their ability to absorb nutrients. Not many patients know about the disorder, either, which contributes to the fact that an estimated 83% of the people with celiac disease haven’t been diagnosed yet.
Celiac Central reports that the average celiac patient waits between 6 and 10 years to be properly diagnosed.
Patients with celiac disease can’t ingest gluten, a protein found in many grains, including wheat and barley. It literally damages their intestines, and while the medical community has yet to catch on to celiac’s prevalence, the condition has had an incredible effect on one industry: food manufacturing. Sales of gluten-free food have doubled in the last five years.
A large gland in the neck shaped like a butterfly, the thyroid produces a number of hormones that regulate body temperature, and guide development. While many of us associate the thyroid’s work only with childhood, its hormones actually play an essential role in human biology throughout adult life, touching on literally every cell in your body.
Maybe it’s this systemic effect that makes thyroid conditions so difficult to diagnose. Hypothyroidism, the most common thyroid disorder, happens when the gland stops making hormones at its normal level, but the reaction is anything but specific. Symptoms like diarrhea, depression, heart palpitations and hunger are often chalked up as normal changes during aging.
Upwards of one in five women will develop hypothyroidism by the age of 60, according to Harvard Medical School, but up to 30% of these patients are being mistakenly prescribed antidepressants, rather than the thyroid replacement hormones that could actually help them.
Speaking with Newsmax Health in July 2015, Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum said “about 85 percent of cases [of fibromyalgia] are misdiagnosed.” The problem, according to Teitelbaum, is that doctors simply aren’t trained to recognize the condition, which causes nearly constant muscle pain.
Part of the problem is that no one really knows what causes fibromyalgia. The best theory, buttressed by the fact that many cases begin after extreme psychological stress, is that a neurological malfunction causes the brain to interpret electrical signals as pain – even when there’s no painful stimulus present.
Another hypothesis places the blame on hormonal imbalances, which might explain why women are far more likely to suffer from fibromyalgia than men.
But like most diseases on this list, fibromyalgia is often misdiagnosed because its symptoms are similar to other conditions. Systemic pain, inexplicable fatigue, confused thought processes; the condition’s characteristic markers could also be the result of a host of autoimmune disorders or thyroid conditions, all of which are well documented in the medical literature, and fairly well understood, unlike fibromyalgia.
4. Lyme Disease
Caused by bacteria spread through tick bites, Lyme disease is harder to diagnose than you’d expect. Everyone knows to look out for a bullseye-shaped rash, but not everyone with Lyme disease will get that symptom. In fact, most signs of the condition look exactly like the flu. When doctors aren’t ascribing the infection’s symptoms to a common ailment, they’re mistaking it for cancer.
We don’t even have good lab tests to detect the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Our best measure is a blood test, but CNN reports that the diagnostic is “notoriously unreliable.” Despite confusion surrounding the current science of Lyme disease, medical textbooks (including Mandell, Douglas and Bennett’s Principles & Practice of Infectious Diseases, the industry standard) continue to tell training physicians that patients can’t have Lyme disease if their blood work comes back negative.
That’s probably why a National Institutes of Health analysis performed in 2005 discovered that patients struggle with the disease for an average of 1.2 years before being properly diagnosed.
Given that cancer is one of the deadliest diseases, it’s shocking how often the disease is confused for something else. In the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers estimated that up to 28% of cases are missed on a doctor’s first pass.
Polling experts in 2013, Best Doctors, Inc. suggested that the most easily misdiagnosed cancers were:
- Breast cancer
- Sarcomas (a soft tissue cancer)
- Melanoma (an aggressive skin cancer)
- Cancers that can’t be pinpointed to a site of origin
Most cancers don’t present any early symptoms, which means they’re already more likely to go unnoticed, or misattributed, than conditions that cause problems from the start. When patients do begin to feel unwell, their symptoms are so “non-specific” that many are told they have psychiatric disorders.
Clinical depression is particularly hard to nail down because its symptoms cross the body-mind barrier.
While a general practitioner is going to note chronic fatigue, how likely are they to identify obsessive brooding unless a patient is especially forthcoming? Because many adults don’t see a therapist on a regular basis, and our society is still marred by a lingering stigma against seeking one out, many patients with depression just haven’t brought their feelings into the doctor’s office yet.
As with anything wrapped up in human thought, depression varies widely from patient to patient. To add to the confusion, depression is easy to confuse with other psychological disorders, including bipolar disorder, which causes intermittent episodes of depression and mania.
Our list’s second autoimmune disorder, lupus causes chronic inflammation in a patient’s skin. The telltale sign is a butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks, but not everyone gets that. Sometimes, the condition even affects joints and muscles which means it can be confused for things like rheumatoid arthritis.
Problematically, lupus appears in “flares,” but then its symptoms dissipate, so patients aren’t as likely to seek out professional attention as they are for conditions that trouble them constantly.