The truth? Your doctor can, and probably will, be wrong sometimes, and there’s very little you can do to stop this. That is, other than protecting yourself with knowledge. Learn about some of the most common misdiagnoses below, and what you can about them, so you can potentially avoid unnecessary treatments, (particularly surgery) and feel better faster.
Misdiagnosis 1: Allergies
What it actually might be: Vasomotor rhinitis
Doctors usually blame congestion, watery eyes, and serious bouts of sneezing on allergies, but unless you recently moved or changed jobs, it’s rare to develop allergies in your 20s and 30s. Instead, your symptoms may be the result of vasomotor rhinitis, a condition triggered by nonallergen irritants, such as perfume, smog, and cigarette smoke, that inflame your nasal mucous membranes, says Patricia Wheeler, M.D., an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Louisville. The allergy medicines you’re prescribed won’t provide relief.
Ask Your Doctor: For a skin-prick test to identify any allergies. If the results are negative, ask to go over potential triggers with your doctor.
Misdiagnosis 2: Torn Meniscus
What it actually might be: Iliotibial-band friction syndrome
The average doctor’s first step in diagnosing severe knee pain is an MRI. The test is so sensitive that it almost always reveals tears in the meniscus, the cartilage in your knee joint. “Nine times out of 10, it’s normal wear and not the source of the pain,” says Ronald Grelsamer, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Mt. Sinai Hospital of New York. Surgical treatment “will lead away from the real problem.” An MRI won’t reveal injuries to your IT band—fibers stretching from your hip to your knee—a source of knee pain that’s treated with physical therapy or orthotics.
Ask Your Doctor: For an Ober’s test, a physical exam that reveals injuries to the IT band.
Misdiagnosis 3: Sinus Headache
What it actually could be: Migraines
Researchers at the American Headache Society examined 100 people with brain pain and found 86 percent of those who thought they had sinus headaches actually had migraines. “If a doctor hears ‘facial pressure,’ he’ll assume sinus headache,” says Craig Schwimmer, M.D., an otolaryngologist in Dallas, Texas. But sinus meds can’t defeat the heavyweight of headaches.
Ask Your Doctor: To refer you to a neurologist if your headaches occur regularly for more than two weeks.
Misdiagnosis 4: Bronchitis
What it actually could be: Asthma
If you hack it up hard after each cold you catch, the culprit could be “hidden” asthma, says Sidney S. Braman, M.D., a professor of medicine at Brown University medical school. “You shouldn’t develop a nagging cough with every cold,” he says. “If so, a bug may be triggering asthma you didn’t know you had.”
Ask Your Doctor: To set up a pulmonary-function test to measure lung strength. Lung capacity lower than 80 percent may signal asthma.
Misdiagnosis 5: Appendicitis
What it actually could be: An inflamed lymph node or stomach virus
Despite advances in diagnostic screening, 16 percent of appendectomies are performed on patients who don’t need them, according to a recent University of Washington study. Appendicitis can be deadly, so doctors are quick to remove the 6-centimeter organ before doing a CT scan to confirm the diagnosis. An inflamed lymph node or virus could produce similar symptoms (and not require surgery).
Ask Your Doctor: To give you a blood test. If it reveals that your white-cell count is over 10,000 cells per microliter, ask for a CT scan of your stomach.
Remember that doctors are only human (and very busy ones at that). It’s in your best interest as a patient to arm yourself with the right information and tools to help them help you: when it comes to your health, you and your doctor are partners, and each has a very important job to do.