Most suffers of a chronic illness will tell you how difficult it is to get a diagnosis. The first difficulty is often the doctors, who simply may not know. So many conditions have overlapping symptoms and tests don’t always get to the root cause quickly. Often it takes a doctor that will look at the whole picture, not just run a blood test here and there. I recently heard of a woman whose local doctors wanted to take her thyroid out, believing it to be the cause of her issues. It took a consultant in London who finally ran the correct scans to find out the problem was with her heart, and could be corrected with medication – scans that could have easily been done previously.
Other doctors may be unwilling to commit to a name of condition – perhaps through fear of being incorrect, or other reasons. Some think giving a name of a condition is branding the patient with a ‘label’.
When you’re so unwell it’s impacting your life, the vast majority of people want to know why. They want a to find out what’s wrong with them so they can research their own condition, or join a support group, or simply so when people ask what is wrong with them, they don’t have to shrug and say ‘your guess is as good as mine’.
Woolly symptoms like ‘pain’, ‘fatigue’ (and I’m sure you can name a million of your own) are hard to explain to people, when you’ve cancelling a night out for the fourth time in a row, or taking more sick time from work, or even applying for benefits. Everyone has those symptoms at times, and it’s hard to understand what it’s like when they become an every day occurrence, or never go away. Or when the pain or fatigue become so crushing you can’t function.
Another problem with chronic illnesses is making sure you’ve got the right diagnosis. Due to the aforementioned intersecting symptoms, it can be hard to pin down exactly what’s wrong with you.
For example constant pain, fatigue and cognitive impairment could be down to a virus, or ME, Multiple Sclerosis, Sleep Apnoea, Hypothyroidism, Lyme Disease, Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Depression, the Flu, or something else entirely!
In an ideal world a doctor would come up with a list of everything it could be and then rule each one out with tests. But it isn’t an ideal world, and doctors are often constrained by time, budgets or equipment. Their personal prejudices may come into play. If someone who is slim presented those symptoms, they may take an entirely different approach to someone who is overweight. Many of my grandads’ ailments have been dismissed with ‘it’s your age, it happens to everyone’ and similarly doctors point at my weight as the problem – rather than seeing someone who has put on weight from being unable to exercise and comfort eating due to pain.
If perhaps I’d been listening to when I was ten years old and complained my limbs hurt, and my knees and ankles kept giving way, they would have discovered I was hypermobile, and given me the correct treatment to strengthen my joints. Then it may have been I wouldn’t have developed chronic pain and Fibromyalgia. Or perhaps I was destined for Fibromyalgia no matter how many stretches I had done as a child. I don’t know.
It took me until the age of 23 until I finally saw a Consultant Rheumatologist who spent time thoroughly looking at my history and symptoms to diagnose me with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Myofascial Pain and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome.
I have seen so many other consultants who were dismissive, or shrugged their shoulders. One doctor even said I was Hypermobile, and then a year later forgot he had done so and declared I was fine without reading my history.
Finally, I’d like to point out that many people in England do not realise that they have the right to be seen at any NHS hospital in the country. You do not have to go to the nearest, or the one your GP decides to send you to. If you hear of department in a specific hospital that seems to do a better job than your own – you can choose to go there. You cannot demand you see a specific doctor, however, but you may request to do so. I’ve often found I can see the doctor I’d like by simply waiting longer.
Please keep fighting for your diagnosis if you think something is wrong. Don’t give up.