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Late To The Party

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Pushing aside the recurring backaches and limb pains is habitual. After all, who has the time to go for appointments to get it checked? However, could this procrastination lead to any sort of delayed diagnosis? Dev Goswami & Anindra Siqueira tell you all that you need to know

If you know someone who suffers from a serious life-threatening condition, you will be familiar with the sentence, “If only we’d caught it earlier!” It’s common knowledge that the earlier you know about an ailment you’re afflicted with, the better and more effective your treatment will be. However, late diagnoses are not rare, especially when it comes to the critical conditions that include cancer, heart attacks, hypertension and diabetes. Is it always your doctor’s fault? Can you do something to prevent it? Why does it even happen when we’ve made so many advances in the field of medical science? We’ve got the answers to all your queries and more. Read on. 

You know those questions the doctor asks you when you go in for a regular checkup? The ones that make you wonder if they even belong on the list of things your doctor needs to know? They are actually important. There are various ways of diagnosing diseases and health conditions, and one of the most effective first steps is to make a proper medical history record, which the doctor creates based on your answers to those seemingly innocuous questions. Do you struggle to catch your breath when you run to catch the bus? Do you feel a weakness in the knees when you walk to the market? Those questions establish an important baseline.

Apart from that, a physical exam, tests and other diagnostic tools are used to help a doctor diagnose specific conditions. For example, when confirming a heart disease, a doctor may take a chest X-ray and follow that with a stress test, an EKG and a series of blood tests. An X-ray and other scans may be necessary to diagnose cancer. Various types of blood tests are used to confirm diabetes.

Your doctor may suspect a condition or disease during a consultation, but a test or a series of tests is what helps to confirm their suspicions. If you suffer from heart disease, the test may show an irregular heartbeat or an obstructed blood vessel. With diabetes, your blood glucose levels are tested to see if they are too high or too low. If you suspect that you might have a certain condition, especially if it runs in your family or is recurring, tell your doctor about it. They will be in a better position to make a decision about tests in the future if they have all the details.

We don’t really have to tell you why getting diagnosed too late is a bad thing, right? The simple answer is that it puts your life in jeopardy. Do you really need more prodding? Get up and get that nagging back pain checked out! Okay, you don’t have to go this instant — if you have a seemingly harmless symptom that you suspect could be a permanent a more serious illness, read our section on the signs and symptoms you should never ignore.

According to Diabetes UK — a diabetes charity institution in the UK that cares for, connects with and campaigns on behalf of people who suffer from diabetes — a large section of those who suffer from diabetes (two-thirds) run the risk of fatalities such as heart attacks, strokes and kidney disease, just because they aren’t diagnosed in time.

Many life-threatening diseases often present themselves in mild ways and their symptoms may mask the underlying disease building up. So, get checked before it’s too late and save yourself (and your loved ones) the trouble of fighting a losing battle.

Conversely, there are several benefits of an early diagnosis. Following the diabetes example, in many instances, when caught early on, people have been able not only to fight against the disease, but have been successful reverse the negative effects caused on by the condition. You will be given medication that will help you to lead a more normal life and you’ll be better off as you grow older.

Dr. Anil Ballani, consulting general physician at Hinduja Healthcare Surgical in Khar, tells us, “Ischemic heart disease can be prevented if blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol levels are kept under control. Even if a person develops blockages in their coronary arteries, the condition can be treated effectively with medication (statins) in the initial stages. Obviously, if it’s diagnosed too late, it can be dangerous because it can lead to heart failure.” Dr. Behram Pardiwalla, consultant of internal medicines at Wockhardt Hospitals, Mumbai Central, says that the danger of a late diagnosis varies depending on the condition in consideration.

Human error (a mistake by your doctor or an unwillingness to recognise symptoms on your part) is not the only thing that leads to a delayed diagnosis. There are certain conditions and medical issues that have several common (and seemingly harmless) early symptoms that renders them difficult to recognise by both your doctor and you. Dr. Anil explains that diabetes, for instance, is a painless condition — since there is no pain, there is no reason for you to suspect that something is wrong. What’s worse is that there is absolutely no way to diagnose diabetes except for with a blood test. And, it is only once you exhibit more serious symptoms such as constant fatigue, weight loss, numbness in your extremities, and, in extreme cases, blurred vision, that your doctor will ask you to undergo the diabetes blood test. On the other hand, if you go for regular medical checkups, there is a high chance of identifying the condition at an early stage.

Similarly, most cancers do not cause any pain, because of which cancerous tumours go undetected for several years, by which time the condition has worsened a fair bit. Ovarian cancer is particularly notorious for being caught late — the early symptoms are very similar to those of menopause, ageing and an irritable bowel syndrome. Another condition that can strike you out of the blue is hypertension. While it is slowly coursing its way through your body, damaging your heart, eyes and kidneys, it will cause no headaches or giddiness — symptoms that are associated with the later stages of the condition. Dr. Anil calls it the silent killer.

On the other hand, there are conditions that throw up a few signs, but still fly under the radar. Dr. Anil explains that coronary artery disease is often diagnosed late because people tend to ignore its symptoms. “People mistake the symptoms and assume that it’s gas or indigestion,” he tells us. The lupus syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder, is another condition that presents several symptoms, but can still go unnoticed in its infancy. It has such a sheer number of seemingly unconnected signs (they can range from bruising and rashes to joint pain and fatigue) that it is difficult to correctly diagnose the condition.     

The most common reasons for a delayed diagnosis include ignoring the symptoms or not realising their critical nature. And, it’s not always you — your doctor may also be at fault. Though instead of blaming you or your doctor, we’d like to point out that sometimes, it is the very nature of  such diseases, conditions and their symptoms that makes it difficult to diagnose them correctly. Several early indicators, such as headaches, stomach aches, fever and muscle pain are so common and are signs of several different diseases that narrowing down on what specific medical condition is afflicting you can become a tough ask.

Lack of awareness about the dangers of a condition or simply about what the symptoms indicate also plays a role. So does your attitude. As Dr. Anil tells us, you may think of yourself as invincible and that makes you ignore signs and symptoms that could point to a danger down the road.

The point of this article isn’t to scare you or to sound alarmist. But, remember this — nothing happens without a reason when we’re talking about your body exhibiting symptoms. Each headache and every stomach upset has a cause — it could very well be because you didn’t get enough sleep last night or that you had a bit too much to drink. You should take a symptom seriously when you can’t think of a valid reason for it. Don’t self-diagnose yourself, but at the same time be ready to visit a doctor if you think that there is something seriously wrong with you. A routine, yearly health checkup is a good idea, even if you exhibit no symptoms, Dr. Anil tells us. He adds, “Those who have a family history of diseases such as cancers and heart attacks should be careful.” All you need to do is tell your doctor about your family’s history of diseases and he will tell you about tests that you must undergo and how often you will need to undergo them. It essentially all boils down to learning how to recognise a problem.

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