The scary truth is that sometimes your M.D. is just plain wrong. Take these five common misdiagnoses for men, some of which could lead to facing the knife unnecessarily. A better plan? Protect yourself with the strategies outlined here, and feel better faster.
What you might really have: 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.
Your strategy: Schedule a skin-prick test to identify any allergies. No dice? Then it's time to go over potential triggers with your doctor.
Diagnosis: torn meniscus
What you might really have: 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.
Your strategy: Request an Ober's test, a physical exam that reveals injuries to the IT band.
Diagnosis: sinus headache
What you might really have: 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.
Your strategy: Mark every headache you have on your calendar. If they occur regularly for more than 2 weeks, call a neurologist.
What you might really have: 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."
Your strategy: Set up a pulmonary-function test to measure lung strength. Lung capacity lower than 80 percent may signal asthma.
What you might really have: 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).
Your strategy: If blood tests reveal that your white-cell count is over 10,000 cells per microliter, ask for a CT scan of your stomach.