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Getting Healthy: What Works, What Doesn't

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Get the Right Diagnosis

1. Keep a symptom journal...

...and bring it to every appointment. Note the problems that occur most frequently and cause the most discomfort, as well as your lifestyle habits. Are you exercising? Getting enough sleep? Stressed out at work? The journal will not only help you remember everything you need to discuss at the visit, but it will also help you and the doctor prioritize your problems, particularly if you're experiencing an odd assortment of issues that don't seem to be triggered by anything. When physicians look at your journal, they may see patterns that you don't, says Wendy Gammon, who runs the Standardized Patient Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, a course that teaches future doctors how to better communicate with patients. I kept one, and after looking at it, my internist noticed that all of my symptoms seemed to appear during periods of increased stress and insufficient sleep, two factors that are known to trigger migraines.

2. Don't hold back.

Tell the doctor everything -- even if you think it's insignificant. One study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that an inadequate symptom history or inadequate physical exam was responsible for 42 percent of missed and delayed diagnoses. Often this information provides the pieces that complete the puzzle -- as was true in my case. At one of my appointments, I mentioned something I'd been too shy to bring up before: pressure on one side of my head and neck during sex, which is a telltale sign of a migraine.

3. Scour your family history.

Many conditions have a genetic component and are linked to one another. For example, having a relative with an autoimmune disease can put you at an increased risk for developing one. Keep a list of your parents', grandparents', and siblings' medical issues. Do a short interview with each family member, and ask about their health concerns at the next gathering. If your family is anything like mine, they're griping anyway -- you're just going to write it down this time!

4. Get a second opinion.

Research shows that this results in a new diagnosis or treatment in as many as 43 percent of cases. "I can't emphasize this enough: Getting a second opinion could save you a lot of trouble and suffering; it could save you," says Dr. Oz. Don't be deterred if the first doctor you see is dismissive. "If your symptoms came on when you were otherwise perfectly healthy, that's a sign to pursue it," says Ladd. "Have confidence that what you're experiencing is real."

5. Keep all of your doctors in the loop.

Going to specialist after specialist, as I did at first, is probably not the best idea. It can slow down the process, because you're starting from zero with each new doctor's appointment. If you're seeing multiple physicians, make sure they all know the whole story by bringing copies of your records to every visit, says George Griffing, MD, a professor of medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

6. Know when to stop worrying.

Work with your doctor to determine when you've explored all of your options, says Dr. Griffing. For me, that meant having all of the tests I possibly could to make sure I didn't have multiple sclerosis like my mother (she had just been diagnosed when my symptoms started) or heart trouble like my father (who died suddenly of heart failure at the age of 54). "You may have to say, 'I accept this for what it is,' even if your symptoms have no name," says Dr. Griffing. "We all have the notion that medical science is as advanced as it can possibly get, but there is a limit to what we know," adds Dana S. Simpler, MD, a general and internal medicine specialist in Baltimore. "Patients want a straight answer, but there are people who simply don't fall into a diagnostic category with a known cause and treatment."

7. Seek out support.

"Not knowing the cause of troubling physical symptoms can make you depressed and anxious. Consulting a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental-health professional can help you cope with those feelings and give you the support you need to pursue finding an accurate diagnosis," says Margaret Backman, PhD, author of The Psychology of the Physically Ill Patient and a psychologist in private practice in New York City. A mental-health professional can teach you meditation and relaxation techniques that can take your mind off aches and pains. "Friends and family can get burdened if you talk about your problems all the time, so it's often good to have an outside party to talk things over with and help you put things in perspective," she explains.

To deal with the stress of my situation, I streamlined things and visited just one internist regularly. I kept a running list of all my concerns, brought those to appointments, and stopped obsessing over every ache and pain in between. My internist thought I might be experiencing a type of migraine headache in which you have the neurological symptoms without always having the actual head pain. Turns out her suspicion was right: She referred me to a specialist who officially diagnosed me as having migraines and prescribed a medication that finally made my maddening symptoms disappear.

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