An Introduction to Medical Diagnosis (4)
Here’s a previous post in the series covering this book. There’s a lot of stuff in these chapters, so the stuff below’s just some of the things I thought were interesting and worth being aware of. I’ve covered three chapters in this post: One about skin, nails and hair, one about the eye, and one about infectious and tropical diseases. I may post one more post about the book later on, but I’m not sure if I’ll do that or not at this point so this may be the last post in the series.
Okay, on to the book – skin, nails and hair (my coverage mostly deals with the skin):
“The skin is a highly specialized organ that covers the entire external surface of the body. Its various roles include protecting the body from trauma, infection and ultraviolet radiation. It provides waterproofing and is important for fluid and temperature regulation. It is essential for the detection of some sensory stimuli. […] Skin problems are extremely common and are responsible for 10–15 per cent of all consultations in general practice. […] Given that there are around 2000 dermatological conditions described, only common and important conditions, including some that might be especially relevant in the examination setting, can be covered here.”
“Urticaria is characterized by the development of red dermal swellings known as weals […]. Scaling is not seen and the lesions are typically very itchy. The lesions result from the release of histamine from mast cells. An important clue to the diagnosis is that individual lesions come and go within 24 hours, although new lesions may be appearing at other sites. Another associated feature is dermographism: a firm scratch of the skin with an orange stick will produce a linear weal within a few minutes. Urticaria is common, estimated to affect up to 20 per cent of the population at some point in their lives.”
“Stevens–Johnson syndrome (SJS) and toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN) are thought to be two ends of a spectrum of the same condition. They are usually attributable to drug hypersensitivity, though a precipitant is not always identified. The latent period following initiation of the drug tends to be longer than seen with a classical maculopapular drug eruption. The disease is termed:
*SJS when 10 per cent or less of the body surface area epidermis detaches
*TEN when greater than 30 per cent detachment occurs.
Anything in between is designated SJS/TEN overlap. Following a prodrome of fever, an erythematous eruption develops. Macules, papules, or plaques may be seen. Some or all of the affected areas become vesicular or bullous, followed by sloughing off of the dead epidermis. This leads to potentially widespread denudation of skin. […] The affected skin is typically painful rather than itchy. […] The risk of death relates to the extent of epidermal loss and can exceed 30 per cent. […] A widespread ‘drug rash’ that is very painful should ring alarm bells.”
“Various skin problems arise in patients with diabetes mellitus. Bacterial and fungal infections are more common, due to impaired immunity. Vascular disease and neuropathy lead to ulceration on the feet, which can sometimes be very deep and there may be underlying osteomyelitis. Granuloma annulare […] and necrobiosis lipoidica have also been associated with diabetes, though many cases are seen in non-diabetic patients. The former produces smooth papules in an annular configuration, often coalescing into a ring. The latter usually occurs over the shins giving rise to yellow-brown discoloration, with marked atrophy and prominent telangiectasia. There is often an annular appearance, with a red or brown border. Acanthosis nigricans, velvety thickening of the flexural skin […], is seen with insulin resistance, with or without frank diabetes. […] Diabetic bullae are also occasionally seen and diabetic dermopathy produces hyperpigmented, atrophic plaques on the legs. The aetiology of these is unknown.”
“Malignant melanoma is one of the commonest cancers in young adults [and it] is responsible for almost three-quarters of skin cancer deaths, despite only accounting for around 4 per cent of skin cancers. Malignant melanoma can arise de novo or from a pre-existing naevus. Most are pigmented, but some are amelanotic. The most important prognostic factor for melanoma is the depth of the tumour when it is excised – Breslow’s thickness. As most malignant melanomas undergo a relatively prolonged radial (horizontal) growth phase prior to invading vertically, there is a window of opportunity for early detection and management, while the prognosis remains favourable. […] ‘Red flag’ findings […] in pigmented lesions are increasing size, darkening colour, irregular pigmentation, multiple colours within the same lesion, and itching or bleeding for no reason. […] In general, be suspicious if a lesion is rapidly changing.”
“Most ocular surface diseases […] are bilateral, whereas most serious pathology (usually involving deeper structures) is unilateral […] Any significant reduction of vision suggests serious pathology [and] [s]udden visual loss always requires urgent investigation and referral to an ophthalmologist. […] Sudden loss of vision is commonly due to a vascular event. These may be vessel occlusions giving rise to ischaemia of vision-serving structures such as the retina, optic nerve or brain. Alternatively there may be vessel rupture and consequent bleeding which may either block transmission of light as in traumatic hyphaema (haemorrhage into the anterior chamber) and vitreous haemorrhage, or may distort the retina as in ‘wet’ age-related macular degeneration (AMD). […] Gradual loss of vision is commonly associated with degenerations or depositions. […] Transient loss of vision is commonly due to temporary or subcritical vascular insufficiency […] Persistent loss of vision suggests structural changes […] or irreversible damage”.
There are a lot of questions one might ask here, and I actually found it interesting to know how much can be learned simply by asking some questions which might help narrow things down – the above are just examples of variables to consider, and there are others as well, e.g. whether or not there is pain (“Painful blurring of vision is most commonly associated with diseases at the front of the eye”, whereas “Painless loss of vision usually arises from problems in the posterior part of the eye”), whether there’s discharge, just how the vision is affected (a blind spot, peripheral field loss, floaters, double vision, …), etc.
“Ptosis (i.e. drooping lid) and a dilated pupil suggest an ipsilateral cranial nerve III palsy. This is a neuro-ophthalmic emergency since it may represent an aneurysm of the posterior communicating artery. […] In such cases the palsy may be the only warning of impending aneurysmal rupture with subsequent subarachnoid haemorrhage. One helpful feature that warns that a cranial nerve III palsy may be compressive is pupil involvement (i.e. a dilated pupil).”
“Although some degree of cataract (loss of transparency of the lens) is almost universal in those >65 years of age, it is only a problem when it is restricting the patient’s activity. It is most commonly due to ageing, but it may be associated with ocular disease (e.g. uveitis), systemic disease (e.g. diabetes), drugs (e.g. systemic corticosteroids) or it may be inherited. It is the commonest cause of treatable blindness worldwide. […] Glaucoma describes a group of eye conditions characterized by a progressive optic neuropathy and visual field loss, in which the intraocular pressure is sufficiently raised to impair normal optic nerve function. Glaucoma may present insidiously or acutely. In the more common primary open angle glaucoma, there is an asymptomatic sustained elevation in intraocular pressure which may cause gradual unnoticed loss of visual field over years, and is a significant cause of blindness worldwide. […] Primary open angle glaucoma is asymptomatic until sufficiently advanced for field loss to be noticeable to the patient. […] Acute angle closure glaucoma is an ophthalmic emergency in which closure of the drainage angle causes a sudden symptomatic elevation of intraocular pressure which may rapidly damage the optic nerve.”
“Age-related macular degeneration is the commonest cause of blindness in the older population (>65 years) in the Western world. Since it is primarily the macula […] that is affected, patients retain their peripheral vision and with it a variable level of independence. There are two forms: ‘dry’ AMD accounts for 90 per cent of cases and the more dramatic ‘wet’ (also known as neovascular) AMD accounts for 10 per cent. […] Treatments for dry AMD do not alter the course of the disease but revolve around optimizing the patient’s remaining vision, such as using magnifiers. […] Treatments for wet AMD seek to reverse the neovascular process”.
“Diabetes is the commonest cause of blindness in the younger population (<65 years) in the Western world. Diabetic retinopathy is a microvascular disease of the retinal circulation. In both type 1 and type 2 diabetes glycaemic control and blood pressure should be optimized to reduce progression. Progression of retinopathy to the proliferative stage is most commonly seen in type 1 diabetes, whereas maculopathy is more commonly a feature of type 2 diabetes. […] Symptoms
*Bilateral. *Usually asymptomatic until either maculopathy or vitreous haemorrhage. [This is part of why screening programs for diabetic eye disease are so common – the first sign of eye disease may well be catastrophic and irreversible vision loss, despite the fact that the disease process may take years or decades to develop to that point] *Gradual loss of vision – suggests diabetic maculopathy (especially if distortion) or cataract. *Sudden loss of vision – most commonly vitreous haemorrhage secondary to proliferative diabetic retinopathy.”
Recap of some key points made in the chapter:
“*For uncomfortable/red eyes, grittiness, itchiness or a foreign body sensation usually indicate ocular surface problems such as conjunctivitis.
*Severe ‘aching’ eye pain suggests serious eye pathology such as acute angle closure glaucoma or scleritis. *Photophobia is most commonly seen with acute anterior uveitis or corneal disease (ulcers or trauma). [it’s also common in migraine]
*Sudden loss of vision is usually due to a vascular event (e.g. retinal vessel occlusions, anterior ischaemic optic neuropathy, ‘wet’ AMD).
*Gradual loss of vision is common in the ageing population. It is frequently due to cataract […], primary open angle glaucoma (peripheral field loss) or ‘dry’ AMD (central field loss).
*Recent-onset flashes and floaters should be presumed to be retinal tear/detachment.
*Double vision may be monocular (both images from the same eye) or binocular (different images from each eye). Binocular double vision is serious, commonly arising from a cranial nerve III, IV or VI palsy. […]
the following presentations are sufficiently serious to warrant urgent referral to an ophthalmologist: sudden loss of vision, severe ‘aching’ eye pain, new-onset flashes and floaters, [and] new-onset binocular diplopia.”
Infectious and tropical diseases:
“Patients with infection (and inflammatory conditions or, less commonly, malignancy) usually report fever […] Whatever the cause, body temperature generally rises in the evening and falls during the night […] Fever is often lower or absent in the morning […]. A sensation of ‘feeling hot’ or ‘feeling cold’ is unreliable – healthy individuals often feel these sensations, as may those with menopausal flushing, thyrotoxicosis, stress, panic, or migraine. The height and duration of fever are important. Rigors (chills or shivering, often uncontrollable and lasting for 20–30 minutes) are highly significant, and so is a documented temperature over 37.5 °C taken with a reliable oral thermometer. Drenching sweats are also highly significant. Rigors generally indicate serious bacterial infections […] or malaria. An oral temperature >39 °C has the same significance as rigors. Rigors generally do not occur in mild viral infections […] malignancy, connective tissue diseases, tuberculosis and other chronic infections. […] Anyone with fever lasting longer than a week should have lost weight – if a patient reports a prolonged fever but no weight loss, the ‘fever’ usually turns out to be of no consequence. […] untouched meals indicate ongoing illness; return of appetite is a reliable sign of recovery.”
“Bacterial infections are the most common cause of sepsis, but other serious infections (e.g. falciparum malaria) or inflammatory states (e.g. pancreatitis, pre-eclamptic toxaemia, burns) can cause the same features. Below are listed the indicators of sepsis – the more abnormal the result, the more severe is the patient’s condition.
*Check if it is above 38 °C or below 36 °C.
*Simple viral infections seldom exceed 39 °C.
*Temperatures (from any cause) are generally higher in the evening than in the early morning.
*As noted above, rigors (uncontrollable shivering) are important indicators of severe bacterial infection or malaria. […] A heart rate greater than 90 beats/min is abnormal, and in severe sepsis a pulse of 140/min is not unusual. […] Peripheries (fingers, toes, nose) are often markedly cooler than central skin (trunk, forehead) with prolonged capillary refill time […] Blood pressure (BP) is low in the supine position (systolic BP <90 mmHg) and falls further when the patient is repositioned upright. In septic shock sometimes the BP is unrecordable on standing, and the patient may faint when they are helped to stand up […] The first sign [of respiratory disturbance] is a respiratory rate greater than 20 breaths/min. This is often a combination of two abnormalities: hypoxia caused by intrapulmonary shunts, and lactic acidosis. […] in hypoxia, the respiratory pattern is normal but rapid. Acidotic breathing has a deep, sighing character (also known as Kussmaul’s respiration). […] Also called toxic encephalopathy or delirium, confusion or drowsiness is often present in sepsis. […] Sepsis is always severe when it is accompanied by organ dysfunction. Septic shock is defined as severe sepsis with hypotension despite adequate fluid replacement.”
“Involuntary neck stiffness (‘nuchal rigidity’) is a characteristic sign of meningitis […] Patients with meningitis or subarachnoid haemorrhage characteristically lie still and do not move the head voluntarily. Patients who complain about a stiff neck are often worried about meningitis; patients with meningitis generally complain of a sore head, not a sore neck – thus neck stiffness is a sign, not a symptom, of meningitis.”
“General practitioners are generally correct when they say an infection is ‘a virus’, but the doctor needs to make an accurate assessment to be sure of not missing a serious bacterial infection masquerading as ‘flu’. […]
*Influenza is highly infectious, so friends, family, or colleagues should also be affected at the same time – the incubation period is short (1–3 days). If there are no other cases, question the diagnosis.
*The onset of viraemic symptoms is abrupt and often quite severe, with chills, headache, and myalgia. There may be mild rigors on the first day, but these are not sustained.
*As the next few days pass, the fever improves each day, and by day 3 the fever is settling or absent. A fever that continues for more than 3 days is not uncomplicated ’flu, and nor is an illness with rigors after the first day.
*As the viraemia subsides, so the upper respiratory symptoms become prominent […] The patient experiences a combination of: rasping sore throat, dry cough, hoarseness, coryza, red eyes, congested sinuses. These persist for a long time (10 days is not unusual) and the patient feels ‘miserable’ but the fever is no longer prominent.”
“Several infections cause a similar picture to ‘glandular fever’. The commonest is EBV [Epstein–Barr Virus], with cytomegalovirus (CMV) a close second; HIV seroconversion may look clinically identical, and acute toxoplasmosis similar (except for the lack of sore throat). Glandular fever in the USA is called ‘infectious mononucleosis’ […] The illness starts with viraemic symptoms of fever (without marked rigors), myalgia, lassitude, and anorexia. A sore throat is characteristic, and the urine often darkens (indicating liver involvement). […] Be very alert for any sign of stridor, or if the tonsils meet in the middle or are threatening to obstruct (a clue is that the patient is unable to swallow their saliva and is drooling or spitting it out). If there are any of these signs of upper airway obstruction, give steroids, intravenous fluids, and call the ENT surgeons urgently – fatal obstruction occasionally occurs in the middle of the night. […] Be very alert for a painful or tender spleen, or any signs of peritonism. In glandular fever the spleen may rupture spontaneously; it is rare, but tragic. It usually begins as a subcapsular haematoma, with pain and tenderness in the left upper quadrant. A secondary rupture through the capsule then occurs at a later date, and this is often rapidly fatal.”
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