The Most Commonly Misdiagnosed Medical Conditions

Every year, millions of people are misdiagnosed, leading to delayed treatments, lost lives, and billions of dollars wasted. Some medical conditions are more frequently misdiagnosed than… Aisha Abdullah - April 14, 2023

Every year, millions of people are misdiagnosed, leading to delayed treatments, lost lives, and billions of dollars wasted. Some medical conditions are more frequently misdiagnosed than others. Knowing how to spot the signs of a bad diagnosis and when to advocate for yourself can help you avoid this all-too-common and potentially deadly error. These are some of the most commonly misdiagnosed health issues.

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Heart Attacks and Strokes Are Misdiagnosed As Acid Reflux and Migraines

Blood vessels carry blood and oxygen to every part of the body. When they’re not functioning properly, it can spell serious trouble for your health. Diseases of the blood vessels, or vascular diseases, range from harmless conditions like varicose veins to life-threatening heart attacks and strokes. Because blood vessels affect every part of your body, vascular disease can have a wide variety of symptoms. This makes diagnosing vascular diseases particularly difficult, especially in emergencies. In fact, one study found vascular events like heart attacks and strokes are the most commonly misdiagnosed conditions in emergency rooms.

The most common cause of heart attacks is blockage of the blood vessels carrying blood to the heart. The chest pain and discomfort associated with heart attacks mimic much less serious conditions like acid reflux and angina, which occurs when heart muscles don’t get enough oxygen. Angina can also cause pain in the shoulder and abdomen, just as a heart attack can. Strokes are caused by blocked or burst blood vessels in the brain. Strokes can cause paralysis, numbness or weakness on one side of the body, dizziness, difficulty walking, severe headaches, and trouble seeing or speaking. Many conditions mimic these symptoms, including seizures, migraines, and functional neurological disorders, a broad category of brain disorders that result from disrupted communication between the brain and body.

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Viral Infections Are Misdiagnosed As Bacterial Infections and Vice Versa

Another condition commonly misdiagnosed in people of all ages is infections, which can run the gamut from a mild upper respiratory infection (a cold) or a severe, life-threatening blood infection (sepsis). One frequent error is misdiagnosing viral infections as bacterial infections. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal. They’re all infected, right? Not exactly. Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics, which are useless against viral infection. If you’re given antibiotics to fight a viral infection, you risk getting sicker as the infection worsens or spreads to other parts of the body. The same is true of a bacterial infection treated with anti-viral drugs.

Untreated infections pose serious health risks. If an infection spreads from the infected area to the blood, it can cause a severe condition called sepsis. Sepsis occurs when an existing infection triggers an extreme immune system, causing a high fever, shortness of breath, severe muscle pain, dizziness, disorientation, fast heartbeat, and fainting. Bacterial infections cause most sepsis, but any infection can lead to sepsis. Sepsis may be mistaken for other deadly conditions, including severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis), poisoning, or diabetic ketoacidosis, a dangerously high level of acid in the blood most common in people with diabetes.

Cancer May Be Misdiagnosed As Benign Growths and Hormonal Changes

The third most commonly misdiagnosed diseases are cancer. One study found that 12 percent of all cancers are misdiagnosed, with skin cancer being the most frequent error. In the earliest stages, many cancers are invisible or have symptoms that are easily missed or mistaken for other conditions. For example, bladder cancer symptoms like frequent and painful urination mimic those of a urinary tract infection. The persistent cough and chest pain associated with lung cancer resembles pneumonia, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Skin cancer may look like many noncancerous growths like cysts, polyps, and abscesses.

Cancer can also hide behind conditions that impact hormones, causing cancer-like symptoms. Ovarian cancer is one of the deadliest cancers despite being very survivable when caught early. Unfortunately, only about 20 percent of cases are detected during the early stages. The disease’s danger is in its ability to remain invisible until it’s too late. With symptoms like abdominal and pelvic pain, heavy periods, and fatigue, it’s easy to see how it might be missed. Diseases that mimic ovarian cancer include uterine fibroids, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, and urinary tract infection. Similarly, menopause can disguise the symptoms of uterine, ovarian, and cervical cancer.

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Hypertension Is Diagnosed in People Without It and Missed in Those With It

High blood pressure or hypertension is a condition that results from the pressure of blood against the walls of the blood vessels being too high. This happens when the opening of the blood vessels is too narrow. Although high blood pressure is one of the most common health conditions in adults, it doesn’t often have obvious symptoms. Still, in theory, it should be an easy disease to diagnose: you only need to take your blood pressure. But surprisingly, research suggests that hypertension is misdiagnosed in around 40 percent of cases. How does that happen? It turns out that many blood pressure reader devices aren’t very accurate.

Manual devices blood pressure devices are frequently used incorrectly or read inaccurately. Automatic blood pressure devices are more accurate but may still result in a misdiagnosis. Taking blood pressure right after a meal, drinking caffeine, or smoking a cigarette can throw off the reading, as can talking, crossing your legs, or needing to go to the bathroom. In addition, using only a single blood pressure measurement to diagnose or rule out high blood pressure can cause errors if the patient’s blood pressure isn’t consistently elevated. Some patients are also falsely diagnosed with hypertension because their blood pressure is temporarily high due to nerves. One study found that 20 percent of patients were incorrectly diagnosed with hypertension. Even more worryingly, hypertension was missed in 18 percent of patients who had it.


Heart Disease

Heart disease is one of the most common health conditions and a leading cause of death worldwide. Yet, despite how commonplace the disease is, it is still frequently misdiagnosed. And women, particularly young women, with heart disease are up to seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed. That’s because many women don’t experience the “classic” symptoms of heart disease like heart palpitations, sweating, jaw pain, and shortness of breath. Instead, their symptoms can appear more like indigestion or back pain. Unfortunately, many doctors are not trained to recognize these as signs of heart disease in women, leading to delayed diagnosis and preventable deaths.

Although it is more common in women, heart disease can be misdiagnosed in anyone. Many health conditions mimic heart disease symptoms. For example, severe kidney and liver disease can cause fatigue, swelling of the feet and legs, shortness of breath, and fluid retention. Symptoms of anemia and lung disease can mirror those of heart failure. The best way to avoid a misdiagnosis is to inform your doctor of any heart disease risk factors you have. Those include a family history of heart issues, underlying conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, and certain inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.


Diabetes Is Sometimes Misdiagnosed… As Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic disease characterized by high levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood. There are two major kinds of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes is sometimes inaccurately called childhood or juvenile diabetes because it is most commonly diagnosed in childhood and adolescence. In people with type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the pancreas, preventing it from producing enough of the hormone insulin to process sugar in the blood. Type 2 diabetes results from the body not making enough insulin or the insulin produced not functioning properly. People with higher weights and family history are at higher risk of type 2 diabetes, but the cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. Insulin is the only treatment for type 1 diabetes, while type 2 can be treated with diet, exercise, and insulin or other medications.

Despite these differences, type 1 and type 2 diabetes share many symptoms, including unexplained weight loss, extreme thirst, frequent urge to pee, and fatigue. Because of this, people with type 1 diabetes may be misdiagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This is especially common in people who were diagnosed after the age of 30. One study found that 40 percent of people diagnosed with diabetes over 30 were misdiagnosed with type 2 diabetes. This is a particularly dangerous error because insulin is required to treat type 1 diabetes but isn’t always prescribed for type 2 diabetes. As a result, the people in the study who were misdiagnosed with type 2 diabetes experienced long delays in receiving life-saving insulin.


Thyroid Disease May Disguise Itself as Menopause or Mental Illness

The thyroid gland in the neck produces hormones that control how the body uses energy and regulates heart rate, breathing, digestion, growth, brain function, and reproductive health. The hormones produced by the thyroid affect almost every system in your body. So when the gland isn’t functioning properly, it can cause confusing and seemingly unrelated symptoms. This broad range of symptoms makes thyroid conditions notoriously difficult to diagnose. The most common thyroid conditions are hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), and goiter (enlarged thyroid). An overactive thyroid causes weight loss, mood swings, hyperactivity, and a fast heartbeat. An underactive thyroid causes weight gain, fatigue, slow or delayed growth in children, and sexual dysfunction. Goiters are common and usually not dangerous. However, if a goiter grows very large, becomes infected, or disrupts hormone production, it can cause pain and difficulty swallowing or breathing.

In women, thyroid conditions may be mistaken for menopause. Both cause unexplained weight changes, sudden changes in body temperature (hot flashes), irregular heartbeat, and sleep issues. Because the thyroid is involved in healthy brain function, it can also cause symptoms that mirror mental illnesses. For example, people with hyperthyroidism may experience anxiety-like symptoms, mood changes, tremors, and difficulty sleeping. People with hypothyroidism sometimes experience confusion, difficulty focusing, and memory loss. Thyroid conditions have been misdiagnosed as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and dementia.


Rheumatoid Arthritis Is Often Misdiagnosed As a Different Type of Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a common autoimmune condition that causes swollen, stiff, and painful joints, usually in the hands and knees. Like other autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis results from the immune system attacking some parts of the body, such as the joints. This leads to painful inflammation in the joints, making it difficult to perform everyday tasks. The key symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are similar to those of other arthritis, making misdiagnosis common. But each type of arthritis has its own cause and treatment type, so it’s important to get the diagnosis right the first time to avoid delays in treatment.

Rheumatoid arthritis is most commonly misdiagnosed as osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis. Osteoarthritis typically affects the knees but, unlike rheumatoid arthritis, is not caused by inflammation. Instead, the condition is caused by a wearing down of the cartilage in the joints, leading to pain and swelling. Treatments for rheumatoid arthritis primarily focus on reducing inflammation and may be ineffective at treating osteoporosis. Similarly, osteoporosis treatments that reinforce or replace the damaged joint won’t reduce rheumatoid arthritis inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis may also be misdiagnosed as psoriatic arthritis, which is related to the autoimmune skin disease psoriasis. Additionally, Lyme disease and lupus can cause severe swelling of the joints that may be mistaken for rheumatoid arthritis.

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Depression Can Look Like Many Other Mental and Physical Illnesses

Depression is a complex disorder. You might be aware of common signs of depression, such as sadness, hopelessness, moodiness, reduced energy, difficulty concentrating, and a loss of interest in things you used to enjoy. But depression can also manifest in unexpected ways like pain, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, loss of appetite, and weight changes. Depression symptoms also differ widely from person to person. Conditions that zap your energy may be mistaken for depression. Things like anemia, certain vitamin deficiencies, hypothyroidism, and even diabetes may disguise themselves as depression by causing fatigue, irritability, and weight loss. Chronic fatigue disorder is also frequently misdiagnosed as depression.

Unfortunately, like other mental health conditions, depression may initially be diagnosed as the wrong mental health issue. This is because mental health symptoms overlap across conditions. For example, anxiety is sometimes a symptom of depression, resulting in people with anxiety being misdiagnosed with depression and vice versa. Similarly, bipolar disorder is characterized by alternating low periods of depression and high periods of mania, where you feel energetic and euphoric. As a result, the disorder is sometimes misdiagnosed as simply depression.

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Some Autoimmune Disease Go Undiagnosed or Misdiagnosed For Decades

A healthy immune system protects the body against foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. In autoimmune diseases, this defense system is turned on the body instead, causing a host of unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms can often be nondescript, including inflammation and fatigue, and may affect multiple, seemingly unrelated organs and systems. These confounding systems lead many people with autoimmune diseases on a so-called “diagnostic odyssey”: years or even decades of misdiagnosis and delayed treatment. As many as 40 percent of people with autoimmune diseases receive at least one misdiagnosis on their journey to health.

Autoimmune diseases aren’t uncommon as a group, affecting between 5 and 8 percent of the population. But, individual autoimmune diseases can be rare and unfamiliar to doctors, making diagnosis difficult. The symptoms of the conditions heavily overlap with each other and other nonautoimmune conditions like type 2 diabetes. Additionally, some autoimmune diseases cluster, meaning they’re more likely to occur together in the same person. That can result in doctors trying to diagnose a single condition from what are actually the symptoms of two or three different autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune conditions can also cause affect the brain and cause neuropsychiatric symptoms that are misdiagnosed as mental illnesses.

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Half of All Asthma Patients May Have Been Misdiagnosed

Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition caused by inflammation and accumulation of mucus in the airways that carry air in and out of the lungs. This leads to a narrowing of the airways, making breathing difficult. During an asthma attack, people experience shortness of breath, chest pain, wheezing, and a cough. A Canadian study found that a third of people diagnosed with asthma don’t actually have the condition. A Dutch study found that half of all children with asthma using the same screening methods worldwide had been misdiagnosed. These misdiagnosed patients often take medication unnecessarily to manage a disease they don’t have.

Common lung infections like pneumonia and bronchiolitis share many features with asthma. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of lung diseases that make breathing difficult and have similar symptoms to asthma. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two most common COPDs and are most likely to occur in smokers. Asthma may also be mistaken for diseases that cause scarring in the lungs or airways, such as cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis. Panic attacks that cause hyperventilation and chest pain may also be mistaken for asthma attacks.

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Knowing Your Family History Helps Avoid a High Cholesterol Misdiagnosis

Hyperlipidemia or high cholesterol is a condition in which there are high levels of lipids (fats) in the blood. Cholesterol is made in the liver and is used to produce bile, which the digestive system uses to digest the fat in food. Your liver produces enough cholesterol for digestion, but you also get additional cholesterol by eating animal products. Not all cholesterol is created equal. High-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol) carries extra cholesterol to the liver, where it can be removed from the body. Low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) accumulates and clogs up the arteries. Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol can sometimes be misdiagnosed by faulty screening tools and human error. That’s a serious issue because high cholesterol increases your risk of other, more serious chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

The most common risk factors of high cholesterol are lifestyle-related, including diets high in saturated or trans fat, lack of physical activity, smoking, and heavy drinking. But your high cholesterol risk may also be found in your genes. A family history of high cholesterol or heart disease. Many people with a genetic predisposition for high cholesterol never get genetic screening and are misdiagnosed. Knowing your family’s health history and informing your doctor about your potential risk can help prevent high cholesterol misdiagnosis.


Many Serious Health Conditions Are Disguised As Back Pain

Back pain is a normal part of life that everyone experiences occasionally. But chronic back pain could be masking more serious issues. Most back pain is caused by muscle or tendon strain, damage to the disk that cushions backbones, a nerve injury like sciatica, and arthritis. This pain may affect the lower, upper, center, or entire back. Pain in the upper back or shoulder can be a sign of a gallbladder or heart attack. Hernias are weak spots in the muscles that support the abdomen and are often felt in the center of the back.

Chronic lower back pain is more frequently a sign of diseases and injuries than pain in other back regions. One of the most dangerous conditions that masquerade as lower back pain is abdominal aorta aneurysm, swelling of the large blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the abdomen and the rest of the body. In addition, kidney issues, including kidney stones and infections, can cause severe lower back pain. Inflammation of abdominal organs may also be felt in the lower back. That includes the pancreas, liver, intestines, and appendix. Finally, gynecological conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome can result in pain that radiates to the lower back from the lower abdomen and pelvic region.

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Migraine Headaches Are Misdiagnosed As Seizures and Strokes

Like back pain, most people have experienced a headache at some point. Most headaches are caused by nothing more serious than a cold or stress. But pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck can also be an early sign of an underlying other underlying medical condition. For example, severe headaches are very common in people with anxiety. Conditions affecting the sinuses or inner ear can also cause headaches. Sinus infections can cause such severe headaches that they are misdiagnosed as migraines. In fact, migraines are some of the most commonly misdiagnosed headaches.

A migraine is a severe and often debilitating headache that causes throbbing pain, dizziness, nausea, and sensitivity to light and noise. The cause of migraines is unknown, and symptoms vary widely, making diagnosing the condition challenging. Migraines are frequently misdiagnosed as other, less severe headaches like tension or sinus headaches. However, a more serious condition may also be disguised as a migraine-like headache. For example, strokes may cause a sudden, severe headache that may be mistaken for a migraine. Headaches, nausea, and sensitivity to light are migraine symptoms that also appear in people experiencing minor seizures.


Anxiety Is Frequently Misdiagnosed as Bipolar Disorder and ADHD

Mental illnesses and neurodevelopmental disorders are among the most frequently misdiagnosed conditions. These disorders present differently in individuals and may have dramatically different symptoms between genders. Anxiety disorders, a group of mental health conditions characterized by excessive fear, worry, or panic, are no exception. Generalized anxiety disorders cause restlessness, fatigue, moodiness, insomnia, difficulty focusing, and unexplained pain, including headaches and muscle aches. This condition may be misdiagnosed as depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a sleep disorder, or a thyroid condition. Anxiety can also cause stomach pain mistaken for gastrointestinal or reproductive issues.

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety that manifests as frequent panic attacks. These attacks are characterized by an elevated heart rate, chest pain, sweating, numbness or tingling in the hands, and a sense of impending doom. These symptoms are nearly identical to those of a heart attack, which can result in the misdiagnosis of both conditions. A panic attack can also cause hyperventilation, which may be confused for an asthma attack. Additionally, dysfunction of the adrenal glands, which produce hormones that help regulate heart rate and blood pressure, can mimic signs of anxiety or a panic attack.


Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Is Misdiagnosed as an Ulcer

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive disorder in which stomach acid flows into the esophagus. GERD is characterized by chronic acid reflux, a weakening of the muscle at the entry of the stomach that closes to prevent stomach acid from rising into the esophagus. The most common symptoms of GERD are heartburn, vomiting, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, and a feeling of tightness or pain in the throat. The chest pain associated with GERD can cause the disease to be mistaken for heart issues, including angina and heart attacks.

GERD is most commonly misdiagnosed as a digestive or intestinal condition. Heartburn and vomiting are symptoms of gallbladder issues. Stomach issues can mimic the symptoms of GERD. Hernias occur when part of there is a weakness in the muscles surrounding the abdomen. When part of the stomach pushes through a hernia, it can cause acid reflux and heartburn. Similarly, stomach ulcers, sores that form on the stomach lining, can cause burning pain and nausea that mirrors signs of GERD. Diseases affecting the esophagus, including inflammation and cancer, may also be mistaken for GERD.

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Celiac Disease Is Misdiagnosed in Up to 97% of Cases

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects the intestines and makes people intolerant to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, they have a severe immune reaction that causes inflammation of the small intestine’s lining. This inflammation results in bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Untreated or poorly managed celiac disease can damage the small intestine and cause poor absorption of nutrients from food. Celiac disease is also associated with an increased risk of certain cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The disease is usually managed by maintaining a strict gluten-free diet.

People with undiagnosed or misdiagnosed celiac disease often suffer for years and risk developing serious complications. Although the public is more aware of celiac disease, the condition is still frequently misdiagnosed as other inflammatory or digestive diseases. By some estimates, celiac disease is misdiagnosed in 97 percent of cases. The disease is commonly mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, cystic fibrosis, gallbladder bladder disease, and Crohn’s disease.

Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Health – One in 10 People With Any of These 3 Serious Conditions Will Be Misdiagnosed, a New Study Says—Here’s Why

Prevention – 6 Commonly Misdiagnosed Conditions in Women

Bustle – 5 Mental Health Disorders That Are Often Misdiagnosed

AARP – 10 Conditions Doctors Often Miss

WebMD – 15 Conditions That Are Hard to Diagnose