The Most Commonly Misdiagnosed Medical Conditions

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… Aisha Abdullah - April 14, 2023
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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