Feature Archive

Medical Conditions Doctors Miss

So you're sleepy a lot and maybe a little blue, and your blood pressure is on the high side. It could be stress, or these and other common symptoms could be signs of serious medical conditions that doctors sometimes overlook.

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

My grandmother Ima would always have something baking in the oven every time I came home from school. My favorite treat was a pastry with generous portions of butter, sugar, and cheese. What I would give to have another whiff of that homemade marvel and to have Ima hand me my warm afternoon snack.

Ima passed away a few years ago from complications related to Parkinson's disease. Family and friends didn't know she had the disorder until it was too late. I wonder if it could have been better managed had we known about the ailment. Of course, there is no cure for Parkinson's disease, and treatment strategies are simply geared toward relieving symptoms. Still, I wonder, as loved ones do, if something could have been done to give us more time with her.

Guesswork may not bring people back into our lives, but awareness and action could possibly help us and loved ones live healthier days. How important is diagnosing a disease before it's too late to change its course? For example, wouldn't it help to know you have high blood pressure and high cholesterol before your first heart attack?

To help in the timely and proper diagnosis of illnesses, patients need to be active advocates for themselves, says Mary Frank, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians and a practicing family doctor in Rohnert Park, Calif. She says it's important to be direct and honest with doctors. This open communication helps screen for diseases.

"A lot of times patients are embarrassed about things, like, for example, when they snore," says Frank. "That could be nothing, or that could be a symptom of a problem like sleep apnea. No need to be embarrassed. Doctors hear those things all the time."

Sometime patients minimize symptoms. They may visit a physician and report they've been feeling tired, but then brush it off by saying 'Oh, but I've been working long hours.' Minimizing symptoms can hinder or delay a doctor's effort to find out the truth. Even if a person is certain of the cause of the symptom, if it's affecting your life, it's worth bringing up, says Frank. In the case of fatigue, it is a symptom of many ailments, including chronic kidney disease, depression, and underactive thyroid.

It also helps to educate yourself on various health issues. Frank says the availability of medical information in the media can help people start a dialogue with their doctors.

To further promote a dialogue between patients and doctors, WebMD has put together information about five conditions that are commonly underdiagnosed. This compilation is by no means exclusive, but it does bring up possible reasons why some illnesses aren't recognized earlier. A greater understanding and consciousness of these disorders could perhaps sooner identify some health problems before they become life-threatening conditions.

Sleep Apnea

Snoring is not usually described as breathtaking, but it can be. The grunting or snorting sound could be a sign of a serious condition called sleep apnea. The condition involves regular interruptions in breathing during sleep. People with sleep apnea experience pauses in breathing that could last 10 seconds or longer for up to 60 times per hour.

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Sleep apnea disrupts sleep and causes excessive daytime sleepiness, which could result in a greater risk of being involved in a car accident, memory problems, irritability, and a diminished desire for sex. Left untreated, the condition could lead to many medical problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and death.

An estimated 18 million people have sleep apnea, and only 2 million of them know it, says Edward Grandi, executive director of the Sleep Apnea Association. He says the disorder is often overlooked because symptoms can be seen as commonplace and not so serious.