Being wary of symptoms that mimic other health problems

The symptoms of some ailments mimic others, says Lisa Salmon

SOME conditions have symptoms that mimic other health problems, or which can be very vague and inconsistent. Also, there aren’t always straightforward tests available, which can make determining a diagnosis far more complex – or, if a condition is especially rare, it might only be considered once everything else has been ruled out. Here are six of the illnesses that can be harder to spot in initial medical consultations...

CERTAIN CANCERS: A 2011 Rarer Cancers Foundation study found that a quarter of cancer patients were only diagnosed once the disease had spread, with many having been initially sent home by their GPs, who dismissed the symptoms as something less serious.

These might be misdiagnosed because symptoms often mimic other, non-cancerous conditions — inflammatory breast cancer, for example, has similar symptoms to mastitis; colorectal cancer may be mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or ulcerative colitis; lung cancer symptoms can be similar to those caused by pneumonia, bronchitis and tuberculosis.

Being wary of symptoms that mimic other health problems

PARKINSON’S DISEASE: The symptoms of this degenerative disorder of the central nervous system include tremors, stiff muscles and problems with balance or walking. It can be mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, stress, or even a head injury, as there are no simple lab tests that can diagnose Parkinson’s.

COELIAC DISEASE: This is often mistaken for other conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticulitis, intestinal infections and chronic fatigue syndrome, because the symptoms can be similar or even identical. Correctly diagnosing coeliac disease is crucial. If a strict gluten-free diet isn’t followed, serious long-term complications can occur.

LUPUS: Fatigue, rashes and joint pain are some of the common symptoms of this autoimmune disease that can affect almost any part of the body, including organs like the heart and kidneys, in severe cases. Although blood and urine tests can indicate lupus, such tests are not always conclusive, and it’s sometimes misdiagnosed as things like arthritis or fibromyalgia, or even dismissed entirely for years.

HYPOTHYROIDISM: It’s thought that around 3% of the population have an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) which can be diagnosed with a blood test and treated with a synthetic hormone. But it can remain undiagnosed for years because symptoms — which include tiredness, weight changes, forgetfulness and lack of concentration — can be very subtle, or might not be recognised as being linked to one underlying cause. Sufferers may be told there’s nothing wrong, or that they’re depressed.

MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS: MS is an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system, resulting in, among other things, problems with muscle movement, balance and vision. Often it’s progressive, and symptoms such as muscle spasms, impaired coordination, blurred vision, numbness and tingling may be mild and vague for some time, before getting worse. There’s no single test to diagnose MS, and it can sometimes be misdiagnosed as a viral infection or lupus, or even Alzheimer’s and bipolar disorder. Blood tests can be helpful in ruling out some other disorders though, and tests, including an MRI scan, may indicate MS.


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