7 Health disorders doctors struggle to recognise in women
Posted on 5 March 2019
Some health conditions are not simple for doctors to identify – many illnesses share the same symptoms as others, and sometimes those symptoms can be fairly non-specific. Dr Lizette Albertse, a GP at Mediclinic Stellenbosch, describes seven health disorders that are often challenging for doctors to recognise in women.
Dr Albertse explains that medical science does not know why these conditions – apart from PCOS, which is unique to women – are more prevalent in women than in men. What they all have in common is the fact that they have non-specific symptoms, which makes prompt diagnosis impossible for doctors.
“All of these illnesses have symptoms that are shared by many conditions,” she adds. “Some are non-specific, like fatigue and feeling generally ‘out-of-sorts’ (particularly the case with chronic fatigue syndrome), which is why many sufferers tend to not heed them way down the line.”
- Fibromyalgia is a non-inflammatory, non-autoimmune syndrome that affects your body’s processing of pain by lowering its pain threshold. The condition presents nothing visible on or in the body – no swollen joints, lesions or inflamed organs, yet results in constant, debilitating pain that affects every aspect of sufferers’ lives.
Symptoms include increased sensitivity to pain, extreme fatigue, muscle stiffness, difficulty sleeping and impaired cognition. These symptoms are not unique to the condition, making it all the more difficult to identify.
Doctors are not sure what causes fibromyalgia, but they do know that the condition is seven times more common in women than in men.
- Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease where your body’s immune system is overactive, attacking your tissues and organs and causing inflammation of your joints and organs, including your skin. The disease can be severe, is potentially life-threatening and has no known cure.
Lupus is said to be nine times more common in women than in men.
No two cases of lupus are identical, often making the illness difficult to diagnose. Symptoms can come on slowly or suddenly, be mild or severe, and might be temporary or permanent. Signs of the condition include fatigue, persistent joint pain and stiffness, joint swelling, skin lesions or rashes that worsen with sun exposure, fever, breathlessness, headaches, dry eyes and chest pain.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder that affects the large intestine. Not considered a disease, IBS is a syndrome that, because its symptoms can be managed by making changes to diet, lifestyle and stress exposure, is often under-reported.
More frequently identified in women than in men, but common to both sexes, the symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhoea (usually in men) or constipation (usually in women), excessive gas, and mucus in the stool.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a life-long chronic disease involving the destruction of myelin, the protective sheath which insulates nerve cell fibres in the brain and spinal cord.
Symptoms of MS include blurry or double vision, red-green colour distortion, blindness in one eye, muscle weakness, loss of coordination and balance, pins and needles in the fingertips, cognitive impairment, and fatigue.
Women are three to four times more likely than men to be diagnosed with MS.
- Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune condition characterised by persistent inflammation of the joints, commonly affecting the hands, fingers, wrists, knees, ankles, hips and shoulders.
Only one per cent of the population is affected, and the condition is three times more common in women than in men.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most prevalent endocrine disorder, affecting as many as one in 10 women. Women with PCOS produce higher than normal amounts of male hormones, resulting in a hormonal imbalance that causes them to skip menstrual periods. It also leads to excessive amounts of hair growth on the face and body or baldness.
- Chronic fatigue syndrome is a complicated condition characterised by extreme fatigue that cannot be explained by any underlying medical disorder. The fatigue often worsens with mental or physical activity or stress but does not improve with rest.
Women in their 40s and 50s are four times more likely to suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome than men.
Why women are more difficult to diagnose
“Women tend to downplay fatigue,” says Dr Albertse. “Most women between the ages of 30 and 50 tend to lead busy lives working full days and still seeing to children, running the home, cooking meals, supervising homework and so on. They tend to consider feeling permanently exhausted quite normal. Men, on the other hand, tend to report fatigue as a definite symptom they’re concerned about.”
Symptoms women should never ignore
“Nobody wants to be rushing to their doctor every time they feel out of sorts,” Dr Albertse says. “What I tell my patients is that they know their body best – if they experience any symptoms outside of that norm, persisting for more than a couple of weeks, they should make an appointment. This relates to anything from disturbed sleep or a dramatic drop in energy levels to a dramatic change in bowel movements or menstruation cycle. If things don’t stabilise within a fortnight, then consult your doctor.”