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11 Conditions That May Be Misdiagnosed as Depression

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Editor's Note

Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

Depression has a complex relationship to other chronic illnesses. Sometimes, when a patient goes to their doctor with undiagnosed symptoms, if the doctor can’t figure out exactly what’s causing them or if their symptoms overlap with the symptoms of depression (like fatigue, sleep problems, changes in appetite or weight, trouble concentrating, unexplained pain and feelings of sadness and/or anger) they may diagnose their patient with depression — even though there is actually another medical issue.

At the same time, having a chronic illness can, understandably, lead to depression, or a person may have depression independent of other health conditions. If you do have depression, it’s important for you to be diagnosed and treated for it. But if that’s not the cause of your other symptoms, yet you’re consistently told depression is to blame, you may not get the proper diagnosis or care you need.

To raise awareness of a few conditions that may be misdiagnosed, we asked our Mighty community to share a medical condition they have that was misdiagnosed as depression. Whether you have depression, a separate medical condition, or a condition that causes depression, know that you deserve to have the right diagnosis and treatment, and to have a medical team fighting to get to the bottom of your health challenges.

1. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS)

EDS is a genetic condition that affects the body’s connective tissue, causing symptoms like pain, joint hypermobility, fragile skin, and things like dental and eye issues. The fatigue and difficulty exercising it can cause, along with a lack of awareness of the condition which can make it difficult for doctors to “connect the dots” of the many symptoms it causes, can lead doctors to misdiagnose EDS as depression.

“For over a decade, I was misdiagnosed with depression and obesity — two years ago, I was properly diagnosed as having hypermobile EDS,” Shay Monika said. “As it would so happen, constant pain can cause anxiety, fatigue looks like depression and someone who feels like that has difficulty exercising regularly.”

“I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and depression, when really I have a genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. I feel my depression was from doctors either not listening or believing, docs who refuse you because they don’t know how to treat me, or don’t want to, clueless docs, etc.,” said Breezy Nichols. “The pain? It changes you, and you can never go back to how it was before, which is sad, and hard to deal with at times.”

2. Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is characterized by widespread body pain, fatigue and brain fog and does not have a definitive diagnosic test or cause, so doctors may interpret these symptoms as physical side effects of depression. In addition, fibromyalgia affects more women than men, so female patients may be brushed off and told it’s “all in their heads.”

“I was in two years of trials trying to get diagnosed and every ‘we don’t know’ made me understandably upset. After one such result the guy tries to hand me a cookie-jar-sized [bottle] of antidepressants, not exaggerating, saying he would just give me the pharmacy-sized bottle… I declined,” Jenn L. Bullock said. “Approximately six months later, it turned out to be fibromyalgia.”

3. Chronic Pain

When a patient describes having chronic pain but doctors can’t immediately find a cause, the patient may be told their pain is caused by depression or stress. But often, the pain is caused by an underlying issue, like complex regional pain syndrome, an injury, or headache. It’s important for doctors to get to the root cause of chronic pain instead of assuming it’s “all in the patient’s head” so they can offer the proper treatment.

“When I first started having chronic daily headaches it was first misdiagnosed as allergies and then as depression. Thankfully I followed up with a good psychiatrist who said it was the opposite way around: I was becoming depressed because of the chronic headaches. It took eight years to find a herniated disc was the cause of it all,” Jayne Newsom Gennuso said.

4. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

People with RA experience fatigue, inflammation and swelling due to the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking the tissues in its own joints. Since the condition is most commonly found in women ages 30 to 60, the symptoms may appear to be caused by depression, exhaustion or stress from work or family.

“I got told I was beyond exhausted because I was a ‘mum’ and my symptoms didn’t look like RA and I was probably just depressed… four weeks later bam, unable to walk due to inflammation levels through the roof!” Sarah Williams said.

5. Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is characterized by dramatic shifts in mood, from depression to mania. But some people are only diagnosed with depression, if their doctor doesn’t recognize their mania. It’s important to get the correct diagnosis so you can treat the entire condition.

“I was diagnosed with depression at 16 and ADHD later but antidepressants never worked for long and the med for ADHD didn’t do much either. I was finally properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder which has overlapping traits of both,” Kim Madsen said. “Once on a mood stabilizer my life became clearer and way easier to manage.”

6. Hypoglycemia

Hypoglycemia occurs when your blood sugar level is too low. It is most commonly found in people who have diabetes (and diabetes itself may be misdiagnosed as depression), however it’s also possible to become hypoglycemic without having diabetes. Symptoms include dizziness, headache, sweating and inability to concentrate.

“I think my favorite was the doctor who refused to test my blood sugar and prescribed Prozac. The actual diagnosis once I finally, after six months, got someone to test my blood sugar? Hypoglycemia. Severe enough hypoglycemia that they called me at home an hour after the blood draw in a dead panic,” Jo Pals Hollingsworth said.

7. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)

It is quite common for people with ME/CFS to be told they are depressed, especially since there is no diagnostic test and many in the medical profession still don’t believe it exists. The post-exertional malaise, painful muscles, poor sleep and brain fog may look like depression, but are actually distinct symptoms and cannot be treated by “pushing through.”

“It took several visits to different doctors who all told me my chronic pain and fatigue amongst other things was just depression. I was made to try a range of antidepressants over many, many months before they would even consider referring me for tests at a hospital,” Stacey-Jayne Yuna Bridgewater said. “Turned out (after many more months of various tests) I have chronic illnesses including fibro and ME amongst others.”

8. Migraine

Migraine is a neurological disorder, and is known to cause head pain as well as  things like nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. When you’re unable to get out of bed or go outside, and when your migraine doesn’t seem to have a specific “cause” or trigger, it may look like you are depressed or that your migraine is caused by depression (when it could actually be the other way around).

“I’ve been diagnosed with depression three times. I actually have chronic migraine (25+ years now) and insomnia. The ‘depressive’ states are when I can barely move, think or talk without being nauseated for weeks or months on end,” Sheri Peterson Hildreth said. “I guess I’m just a little too honest when I fill out those symptom forms and cry in front of professionals because of the pain and frustration in not finding a treatment that works.”

9. Lyme Disease

Not everyone in the medical community believes chronic Lyme disease exists, so if a person doesn’t test positive, they may be assumed to have depression if doctors can’t figure out any other potential cause of their symptoms (even though Lyme tests are not always reliable).

“For only 50 years I was misdiagnosed with mental illness, including depression and generalized anxiety disorder and other things. The root was late-stage Lyme disease only diagnosed three years ago at age 67,” Marcia Mehlman said. “I wish doctors would test for infections, such as caused by Lyme…”

10. Hypothyroidism

People with hypothyroidism have an underactive thyroid that is not producing enough thyroid hormone. This can lead to symptoms like fatigue, dry skin, brain fog, feeling cold and even depression itself. However, testing your thyroid levels and treating hypothyroidism can help improve symptoms.

Malina M. said a sign of her hypothyroidism was “being super exhausted all the time, gaining weight despite starving myself and slowly spiraling into depression. My mum was telling the doctors that I had an underactive thyroid years before I got diagnosed.”

11. ADHD

ADHD is occasionally misdiagnosed as depression, and vice versa, because many of the symptoms overlap — feeling fatigued at the end of the day, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, low motivation and feeling worthless.

“For many years I was misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. None of the antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds ever worked for. I took a lot of different ones. Eventually, I started ADHD meds and was diagnosed with that,” Ginny Parrett said. “The anxiety almost completely disappeared and I no longer struggled with depression. According to the psychiatrist, while on medication I no longer qualified for any diagnosis.”

Originally published: August 29, 2018
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