Journal Article

Symptoms ‘unexplained by organic disease’ in 1144 new neurology out-patients: how often does the diagnosis change at follow-up?

Jon Stone, A. Carson, R. Duncan, R. Coleman, R. Roberts, C. Warlow, C. Hibberd, G. Murray, R. Cull, A. Pelosi, J. Cavanagh, K. Matthews, R. Goldbeck, R. Smyth, J. Walker, A.D. MacMahon and M. Sharpe

in Brain

Published on behalf of The Guarantors of Brain

Volume 132, issue 10, pages 2878-2888
Published in print October 2009 | ISSN: 0006-8950
Published online September 2009 | e-ISSN: 1460-2156 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awp220
Symptoms ‘unexplained by organic disease’ in 1144 new neurology out-patients: how often does the diagnosis change at follow-up?

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It has been previously reported that a substantial proportion of newly referred neurology out-patients have symptoms that are considered by the assessing neurologist as unexplained by ‘organic disease’. There has however been much controversy about how often such patients subsequently develop a disease diagnosis that, with hindsight, would have explained the symptoms. We aimed to determine in a large sample of new neurology out-patients: (i) what proportion are assessed as having symptoms unexplained by disease and the diagnoses given to them; and (ii) how often a neurological disorder emerged which, with hindsight, explained the original symptoms. We carried out a prospective cohort study of patients referred from primary care to National Health Service neurology clinics in Scotland, UK. Measures were: (i) the proportion of patients with symptoms rated by the assessing neurologist as ‘not at all’ or only ‘somewhat explained’ by ‘organic disease’ and the neurological diagnoses recorded at initial assessment; and (ii) the frequency of unexpected new diagnoses made over the following 18 months (according to the primary-care physician). One thousand four hundred and forty-four patients (30% of all new patients) were rated as having symptoms ‘not at all’ or only ‘somewhat explained’ by ‘organic disease’. The most common categories of diagnosis were: (i) organic neurological disease but with symptoms unexplained by it (26%); (ii) headache disorders (26%); and (iii) conversion symptoms (motor, sensory or non-epileptic attacks) (18%). At follow-up only 4 out of 1030 patients (0.4%) had acquired an organic disease diagnosis that was unexpected at initial assessment and plausibly the cause of the patients’ original symptoms. Eight patients had died at follow-up; five of whom had initial diagnoses of non-epileptic attacks. Seven other types of diagnostic change with very different implications to a ‘missed diagnosis’ were found and a new classification of diagnostic revision is presented. One-third of new neurology out-patients are assessed as having symptoms ‘unexplained by organic disease’. A new diagnosis, which with hindsight explained the original symptoms, rarely became apparent to the patient's primary care doctor in the 18 months following the initial hospital consultation.

Keywords: conversion disorder; neurology; medically unexplained symptoms; misdiagnosis; prognosis

Journal Article.  5558 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Neurology ; Neuroscience

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