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Getting Healthy: What Works, What Doesn't

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The Diseases Doctors Miss in Women

What are the hardest diseases for physicians to diagnose? The experts we talked to mentioned the following four. All of them commonly hit women in their 20s and 30s.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) More than one million Americans -- about 80 percent of them women -- suffer from CFS. It's characterized by fatigue that won't go away, but other symptoms can include sore throat, muscle and joint pain, forgetfulness, insomnia, weakness, dry eyes and mouth, dizziness, skin sensations, and weight loss. Experts haven't identified a single cause, and no diagnostic tests are available. Because of this, doctors treat symptoms as they appear. For more info:, the Web site of the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association of America.

Fibromyalgia Chronic pain is the number-one warning sign of this disease, which affects up to 7 percent of Americans, most of them women. Sufferers often complain of all-over musculoskeletal discomfort. Other symptoms include fatigue, impaired coordination, insomnia, skin sensitivity and rashes, headaches, anxiety, and irritable bowel and bladder. As with CFS, the cause is unknown and there's no one "cure"; symptoms are treated as they occur. A patient is diagnosed with the condition if she has widespread pain for at least three months and tenderness or pain in at least 11 of 18 specified points in her body, including the inside of the knee joints and the crook of the elbow. For more info:, the Web site of the National Fibromyalgia Association.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Symptoms of IBS, which affects about 40 million women, include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. No lab test can diagnose IBS, and a doctor must first rule out other gastrointestinal disorders. Treatment is usually a combination of stress management, fiber supplements, and medication. For more info:, the Web site of the Irritable Bowel Syndrome Association.

Scleroderma An autoimmune disease that causes the hardening and scarring of the skin and connective tissues, scleroderma may affect multiple organs and can cause kidney failure and pulmonary hypertension, which can lead to heart failure. It affects up to 100,000 people in the United States, and female patients outnumber males by about four to one. Doctors don't know what causes scleroderma, and the various complications of the disease are treated as they occur. For more info:, the Web site of the Scleroderma Foundation.

Is It All in Your Head?

If your doctor suggests that depression may be to blame for symptoms that don't respond to treatment, she's not dismissing your concerns. In fact, she may have cracked your case. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, physical symptoms that don't respond to treatment, including headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain, can be warning signs of depression. "The mind-body connection is very real," says Margaret Backman, MD. As doctors now know, depression comes with physical symptoms such as stomach pain, fatigue, and insomnia. "It's the more enlightened medical professionals who refer people to a psychiatrist or psychologist," says Dr. Backman. "Getting treated for depression -- through therapy, antidepressants, or a combination of both -- often significantly improves a patient's symptoms."

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, February 2007.


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