Mental health: Could a physical problem be causing your psychological symptoms?

October 3, 2017 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn
physical and mental health consultation

If you’re experiencing the symptoms of mental health issues like anxiety or depression, you may want to discuss with your doctor whether these symptoms could be the result of a physical health problem. A number of different physical health problems share symptoms with mental health conditions, which can sometimes lead to misdiagnosis. Some researchers have found that physical health problems may be the underlying cause of mental health symptoms in 25% of patients receiving psychiatric care.

When should you question your diagnosis?

Depression and anxiety are common mental health issues, with millions of people diagnosed with these conditions in the U.S. If your symptoms appear to strongly suggest a mental health issue, your physician may not pursue medical tests that could identify an underlying physical cause for your symptoms. However, there are certain situations where checking to find out if an underlying physical health problem may be causing your symptoms is prudent, including:

  • Your symptoms start suddenly and you have no history of mental health issues and have not recently experienced a traumatic or highly stressful event like the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss
  • There is no family history of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues
  • You’ve recently had head trauma
  • Depression occurs for the first time after age 55

Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety include faster than normal heart rate, rapid breathing, fatigue, trouble concentrating, sleep problems, and gastrointestinal symptoms like stomach pain and diarrhea. Among the physical health problems that can mimic the symptoms of anxiety are:

  • Heart disease and heart attack
  • Respiratory diseases, including asthma and COPD
  • Diabetes
  • Over- or under-active thyroid
  • Chronic pain
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Rare tumors that cause your endocrine system to over produce adrenaline
  • Peptic ulcers
  • High and low blood sugar

The symptoms of depression can include fatigue, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, sudden weight loss or gain, irritability, loss of interest in things you previously enjoyed, and trouble concentrating. A wide range of physical health problems share these symptoms, including:

  • Underactive thyroid
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Allergies
  • Certain cancers
  • Sleep apnea
  • Lyme disease
  • Autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis

How to get the right diagnosis

There are several steps that can help ensure that your doctor explores all possible, appropriate diagnoses:

  • Ask your doctor if there any other health issues that could be causing your symptoms and if so whether there are appropriate diagnostic tests that could help clarify your diagnosis.
  • Make sure your doctor has access to your complete, up-to-date medical record and family history so she or he is aware of past diagnoses and risk factors. Ask if there is information in your medical history that does not fit with the current diagnosis.
  • Do some research or work with a health advisor who can provide information about potential alternative diagnoses.
  • Get a second opinion. If your original diagnosis was made by a mental health specialist, talk with your primary care doctor about whether a physical health issue could be the underlying cause of your symptoms.
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