Soundbite Medicine

During lunch the other day in my hospital’s cafeteria, I mentioned to my colleagues that in my recent poll of multiple sclerosis (MS) patients, the vast majority seemed to have symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea or upper airway resistance syndrome: Severe parental snoring, cold hands or feet, never being able to sleep on their backs, and frequent trips to the bathroom at night. Immediately they reflexively dismissed a possible association and attributed the symptoms to neurologic reasons. 

The same situation occurs with patients as well, especially if they already have one (test) confirmed diagnosis. Any other or unusual signs or symptoms are attributed to their original medical diagnosis and a search for other possible causes is never perused. 


Many people will develop obstructive sleep apnea as they age. It’s estimated that about 1/4 of all men and 1/10th of all women have obstructive sleep apnea in this country. Eighty to ninety percent are thought not to be diagnosed. After age 60, a majority of people probably have some degree of sleep apnea. If that person already has another diagnosis (such as MS), then symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, and headaches will automatically be blamed on MS, no matter how unusual. 


In the classic book, Influence: The Science of Persuasion, by Dr. Robert Cialdini, he brings up the concept of commitment and consistency. Once you’re committed to something, how you behave and think has to be consistent with your original commitment. The same process applies with medical diagnoses, to a certain degree.


In this era of information overload for both patients and physicians, it’s no wonder that alternative or additional possible explanations are not looked into once you already have another diagnosis. Not only are you bringing into doubt the original diagnosis, but it also just takes too much time and energy.

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2 thoughts on “Soundbite Medicine

  1. Guilty! First I had a heart attack, and blamed everything on my heart. Then I was diagnosed with MS, and want to blame everything on the MS, while sometimes thinking it could maybe be cardio related.

    Then I started reading your work, mentioned it to my ENT in context with my nighttime chest pains, and after a sleep study find I have sleep apnea.

    We’ve been taught to not switch horses in the middle of a race – I guess instead of the racing horse we need to think we’re driving a wagon train and keep adding more horses to the team. Staying open to the possibilities is a hard lesson to learn when we already have one firm diagnosis.

    thanks for your continued thoughts on this topic.