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Sometimes even the best doctors miss the mark: About 40 percent of all mistakes that M.D.s make are misdiagnoses, says the National Patient Safety Foundation. That’s because many ailments have similar symptoms or can be detected only with tests that your physician might consider unnecessary if he’s confident in his verdict. If you’re in the know about often-confused conditions, though, you can ask the right questions to prevent or fix an error — and even save your life.

1. YOUR SYMPTOMS: Numbness on one side, headaches, dizziness, suddenly blurred vision, lack of balance or muscle coordination, and/or slurred speech

The doctor says it’s: Vertigo, migraines, or an inner-ear disorder

It could be: Stroke

Why the confusion? Research shows that 14 percent of stroke cases in people under 45 are misdiagnosed. When patients are young and otherwise healthy, ER staff might point to milder problems first. But if you leave the ER with an undiagnosed stroke, you could suffer another one. You may also miss the chance to reverse impaired speech or vision, paralysis, and brain damage. Red flags: If one side is numb or you have any combination of the listed symptoms, rush to the ER, especially if symptoms persist more than an hour.

2. YOUR SYMPTOMS: Headaches and/or ringing or aching ears, plus aching back, neck, and/or teeth

The doctor says it’s: Migraines or an ear disorder

It could be: Temporomandibular joint syndrome

Why the confusion? When the joint connecting your jaw and skull becomes inflamed, the pain radiates and causes headaches or ear problems. TMJ is best treated by a dentist, but the symptoms will likely send you to an M.D., who might diagnose you with something else. The price you’ll pay? Serious pain that could easily have been alleviated. Red flags: If your doctor gives a tentative diagnosis without conducting any tests or prescribes meds that don’t do the trick, head to a dentist.

3. YOUR SYMPTOMS: Fatigue or trouble breathing plus chest pain or tightness and/or palpitations

The doctor says it’s: Stress or panic attack

It could be: Heart attack or heart disease

Why the confusion? Heart attacks tend to be more subtle in women than in men: Fatigue or shortness of breath might be your only sign of a problem. In fact, up to half of female heart attack victims are initially misdiagnosed — and heart disease remains the top killer of women in America. Red flags: If your doc’s recommended treatment doesn’t help, see a cardiologist, pronto.

4. THE SYMPTOMS: Sadness plus fatigue, weight gain, insomnia, and/or muscle aches or stiffness

The doctor says it’s: Depression

It could be: Hypothyroidism

Why the confusion? Doctors tend to link persistent sadness with depression and might not think to test for hypothyroidism, a condition in which your thyroid gland fails to produce enough hormones. Left untreated, hypothyroidism can cause high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, and (ironically) clinical depression. Red flags: If the meds your doctor prescribes don’t lift your mood, request a TSH blood test to check for hypothyroidism. Better yet, ask for the test during your initial visit.

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