It’s a fact of life for 12 million Americans every year.
That’s almost 1 in 20 people who are given the wrong diagnosis.
Suddenly, that concern feels far more plausible.
In this article, we’re going to look at some of the most common misdiagnoses, and then empower you to get the medical advice you need in the aftermath of a wrong diagnosis.
The Most Common Misdiagnoses
No doctor wants to give you a wrong diagnosis, but it does happen. You’re most likely to get the wrong treatment under one of three conditions:
1. It’s a rare condition
2. It’s a common condition that’s presenting atypically in you
3. The symptoms are similar, if not identical, to another condition
Cancer. Frighteningly, cancer may be misdiagnosed between 28-44% of the time, depending on the type of cancer. This wrong diagnosis usually comes from missing patient information, the doctor spending too little time with the patient, or getting an incomplete history.
Celiac disease. Although we hope fewer people will get the wrong diagnosis now that more attention is being paid to gluten, celiac disease is often still misdiagnosed. Since the symptoms are different person to person, it’s often difficult to narrow down. There are obvious symptoms, like abdominal pain and digestive issues, but then there are less obvious ones, like headaches, joint pain, and depression. Celiac disease is often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome.
Heart attack. Since symptoms of a heart attack vary with age and gender, doctors are prone to missing them. Younger people experience pain, whereas older people may only experience indigestion. Men often report chest pain, chest discomfort, and pressure. Women, on the other hand, often report pain in the neck, jaw, or shoulder, nausea, sweating, and fatigue.
Lyme disease. The wrong diagnosis is so common with Lyme disease that the average patient suffers with symptoms an average of one and a half years before finally getting the right treatment. The biggest issue is that many don’t get the most tell-tale symptom: rash. And even if a person does get the rash, it’s often missed. Other symptoms include muscle pain, joint pain, fever, stiffness, and fatigue.
Pulmonary Embolism. A pulmonary embolism is caused when the main artery in the lungs – the pulmonary artery – gets blocked, usually by a blood clot. The condition can be fatal if not treated properly, but its symptoms:
- Sudden, persistent cough
- Sudden onset of shortness of breath at rest or with exertion
- Chest pain
- Lightheadedness, dizziness
- Increased heart rate and rapid breathing
Sounds a lot like pneumonia, heart attack, or even anxiety. As such, as many as 33.5% of pulmonary embolism patients are initially given the wrong diagnosis.
Stroke. While some symptoms of stroke, like loss of speech and facial numbness, are easy to spot, others are more subtle, and these can often lead to the wrong diagnosis. Doctors often misdiagnose difficulty walking, balance issues, and severe headache with vertigo or migraine. Unfortunately, in young people, symptoms are often written off as intoxication or a hangover. When it comes to strokes, remember FAST: face drooping, arm weakness, speech problems, time to call 911.
Thyroid conditions. Both hyperthyroid, when the body makes too much thyroid hormone, and hypothyroid, when the body makes too little thyroid hormone, have very common symptoms, including just having an “off” month. Which makes them difficult to diagnose, and easy for doctors to disregard. Pay close attention to weakness, fatigue, unexplained and unexpected weight changes, and muscle pain.
What to Do Next
If you feel you’ve gotten the wrong diagnosis – or want to stack the deck in your favor to avoid a misdiagnosis – here are some of the next steps you should take.
1. Get past – and don’t fall for – the God complex. Doctors aren’t gods. They don’t know everything. They’re human beings, which means they can and do make mistakes. Yes, they’re very smart and very well-educated. That doesn’t make them perfect. If you want a second (or third…) opinion, get one.
2. Ask for your medical records. They are yours and you have a right to copies of them. You may have to fill out a form, but you must be allowed access to your own, complete files. This way, any other doctors can see what the initial symptoms, diagnosis, and course of treatment, so you’re not revisiting past mistakes. When you go get another opinion, take them with you and allow the new office to make copies. Just remember, you still don’t have to give your copies away.
3. Use the internet (but use it wisely). Diagnosing yourself is probably not a great idea. Still, the internet can be a valuable resource for double-checking your symptoms against the initial diagnosis, and against other, possible conditions.
4. Do your research. You don’t have to follow a course of treatment that makes you uncomfortable. It’s fair to research alternatives and discuss them with your doctors. Know what treatments – both conventional and unconventional - are available in your area.
5. Be your own advocate. You know your body. You know if something’s wrong. If you feel you’ve gotten a wrong diagnosis, don’t second-guess yourself. Speak up, and get the help you need. It’s your health. Your choices. Your life. Don’t turn it over to treatment you don’t trust.
Yes, getting the wrong diagnosis is more common than anyone would like to admit.
While you may not be able to prevent it, you can protect yourself from it once it’s happened.
Be smart. Be strong. And trust yourself.