For weeks, possibly months, you lived in a state of uncertainty. Something hurt, something was not right, so you went into your physician’s office, assuming you would explain what was going on and be handed a solution. That is probably not what happened. If you were lucky, the clinician ordered a few tests, and you were given a diagnosis. For others, the diagnosis came after months of tests and doctor appointments. This happens more often than not.
For a small few, there is only a possible diagnosis and nothing definitive. That is, your doctor knows there is an issue but has chosen a diagnosis that is the closest match and is proceeding while hoping for the best. This uncertainty can be unnerving. This last situation is more common when the problem turns out to be extremely rare or shares many similarities with other diagnoses, especially when the focus is a mental health diagnosis.
What is a diagnosis? A diagnosis is the end product of a series of inquiries, questions, assessments, and tests. It is selected based upon what the patient is experiencing along with the outcomes from lab results, interviews, and imaging such as x-rays and CT scans, for example. These outcomes are checked against a database of similarly documented situations. If the patient meets the criteria, the diagnosis is given.
This process is often difficult to be definitive in that many symptoms and test results are common to a number of diagnoses. Think about a cough, a sore throat, or pain in the leg. Many conditions can cause those symptoms. This is often why multiple tests need to be performed. Even for something as simple as strep throat, a culture test is required to assign a diagnosis and is essential in making sure that the proper treatment is selected.
The diagnostic process becomes all the more complicated in situations like multiple sclerosis, cancer, mental health conditions, or other rare disorders, where criteria may not wholly match what is happening with the patient. Each patient presents differently based upon their own makeup as well as a host of other complex, outside factors that increase the difficulty in finding the correct diagnosis.
This problem is also compounded by the fact that time stops for no one and that whatever is causing the symptoms needs to be addressed in some fashion so that the problem does not become worse.
Given this race against time, there is often a preliminary diagnosis assigned early within the process. A preliminary diagnosis gives you a baseline understanding of what you are dealing with. A diagnosis allows a clinician to select tools and approaches that have been historically known to help alleviate the situation. It is essential to recognize that this process is moving in an evidence-based and educated direction and that adjustments will often be made as more information is discovered.
This is not an easy time for anyone involved. Not for the patient, not for the family, and not for the medical staff. There is uncertainty about the future, which is the root cause of anxiety. While the diagnosis may not be the absolute truth, especially in the beginning, it is at least a direction that promises to offer some peace of mind because progress is being made. It all begins with the initial visitation with your clinician and the first series of diagnostics.