If you want to take a tour of the world's least common -- but most familiar -- medical conditions, all you need to do is spend an evening channel surfing. You'll meet a person with post-traumatic amnesia. Someone with multiple personalities. A man with a life-threatening allergic reaction to onions. If a patient comes in with a more mundane ear infection or an ingrown toenail, it's either played for laughs, or the doctors are about to uncover a hidden and far more fascinating problem.
While more dramatic conditions may make for good TV, they don't often happen in real life. And the same goes for doctors' heroic actions that are compelling on screen but would never work in a real hospital. Here are 10 conditions we thought were contrived, listed in no particular order.
TV dramas have no shortage of cases of what used to be called multiple personality disorder. Now called dissociative identity disorder (DID) by experts, this condition is related to severe trauma experienced during early childhood. It causes the person to have two or more different identities. A patient may also have forgotten whom he or she really is. In the Showtime series, "United States of Tara," the main character has alternate personalities. One is a 1950s housewife named Alice. Another is a Vietnam veteran named Buck (who wreaks havoc on "his" marriage when he has an affair).
How common is this malady? Not very. Experts estimate that between 0.1 percent and 1 percent of the general population has DID [source: WebMD]. In fact, some speculate that a recent upswing in the number of diagnoses of DID may be spurred on by increased attention in fiction and the news media [source: Lilienfeld, et al.]
Amnesia is a common theme in primetime dramas. In season four of "Lost,"Desmond experiences amnesia after a helicopter crash and doesn't recognize anyone [source: ABC]. He apparently has post-traumatic amnesia. But that may not be accurate. There are two main types of amnesia that occur after major trauma (usually a head injury): post-traumatic amnesia and retrograde amnesia. In retrograde amnesia, people don't remember what happened before the injury occurred. But they may have a sense of self, time, and place. In post-traumatic amnesia, the person is confused and doesn't know where or whom he is. From what you see on TV, post-traumatic amnesia can show up in someone who's never even been in a coma, or in a person who was in a coma for a very short time. In reality, post-traumatic amnesia is a normal part of the recovery process for patients emerging from a coma [source: Synapse].
People with autism are often depicted as geniuses on TV. But in reality, autism is a "spectrum disorder," meaning people who have it fall within a wide range of abilities. The National Institutes of Health estimates that as many as 10 percent of people with autism have "savant," or genius, capabilities. They may excel in math or music, for example. However, most people with autism fall in a more moderate range of abilities. In the soap opera "All My Children,"Lily is a character with Asperger's syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism. In fact, her character is considered a genius. Although the show raised autism awareness, it depicted just one form of the disorder.
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation is a mainstay of primetime medical dramas. Patients who have cardiac arrest seem to always magically come back to life when they receive CPR. But the truth is that more than 95 percent of cardiac arrest victims die before reaching the hospital, according to the American Heart Association. TV shows clearly overestimate the survival of people who receive CPR in the hospital. A 2006 study in the New England Journal of Medicine evaluated CPR on four TV shows such as "ER" and "Chicago Hope."The study found that of 60 patients who underwent CPR, 46, or 77 percent, survived. Actual CPR survival rates in the medical literature for hospitalized patients range from 30 to 40 percent [source: Diem, Lantos and Tulsky].
How many times have you seen a pregnant woman go through the entire labor and delivery process in 10 minutes on TV? Take the season finale of "Glee," where Quinn Fabray delivers during a musical number. Or in the series finale of "Lost," when Claire Littleton delivers in a similarly brief amount of time. Although 10 minutes is the usual amount of time between commercials on prime time, that time interval probably seems absurd to women who have given birth in real life. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the average first-time vaginal birth lasts from 12 to 14 hours. Subsequent births may take less time, but certainly not 10 minutes.
Having sex one time ... especially the first time -- almost guarantees pregnancy on TV, especially in soap operas. Boy meets girl, boy seduces girl, they never have sex again, and the next thing you know there's a baby shower. But the chance of getting pregnant after just one instance of sexual intercourse is not great. In fact, the chance of becoming pregnant within one monthly cycle ranges from zero on day one to 9 percent on day 13 (ovulation occurs mid-cycle) [source: Princeton University]. And that's in couples who are actually trying to get pregnant and who have sex throughout the month. Fertility rates in women also decline with age. So women older than age 35 would be even less likely to conceive after having sex just once than women younger than age 20. What does all this mean? It's folly to have unprotected sex even once in hopes you won't conceive. But it's not a sure thing that you'll become pregnant from one act of intercourse, either.
Some female TV characters who desperately want a child seem to have trouble conceiving ... until they adopt or give up trying. In the HBO series "Sex and the City", Charlotte desperately wants a baby. But she can't conceive right away. So she ends up undergoing in-vitro fertilization. When she still fails to become pregnant, she and her husband, Harry, adopt a child. Then she becomes pregnant. Amy in HBO's "In Treatment" battles infertility for five years. When she stops trying to conceive, she becomes pregnant. Adoption or "giving up" on getting pregnant do not in themselves increase your chances of becoming pregnant, though television sure makes it seem that way. However, as many as one in five couples who have been diagnosed with infertility end up becoming pregnant without any treatment.
Rare diseases seem to be diagnosed by doctors all the time on TV. After all, most of the common stuff is boring, right? But why do TV doctors diagnose some rare maladies and not others? For example, "House M.D." has a common refrain -- "It's never lupus." Why? Systemic lupus erythematosus, usually just referred to as lupus, is a chronic inflammatory disease that causes the body's immune system to damage the person's body. Lupus can cause hair loss, fatigue, memory loss, and fever. These symptoms could account for any number of other diseases. Organs such as the heart and lungs may be affected by lupus. That diverse range of symptoms can cause misdiagnoses. And lupus isn't that common. It occurs in 1.8 to 7.6 Americans per 100,000 [source:U.S. Centers for Disease Control]. And that's why one time -- finally, on an episode entitled "You Don't Want to Know," a patient was finally diagnosed with the rare disease [source: Lupus Foundation of America].
How many times have you seen a person on TV in a deep coma awaken spontaneously with no residual effects? Characters appear to merely awaken from a refreshing sleep when rousing from a deep coma. But in reality, deep coma is when the person is so unresponsive that he or she is unable to be aroused at all, even to painful stimuli. The longer someone is in a deep coma, the less likely it is that he or she will recover. If a person in a coma begins speaking or communicating with verbal noises, can follow objects with the eyes, or can follow commands within the first few days, they're likely to recover. But the recovery of a person who has been in a deep coma for weeks or months isn't full and spontaneous. In fact, the general consensus by experts is that if a deep coma from a head injury lasts for three months or more, it's unlikely the person will substantially recover [source: Merck Manual]. The first sign of recovery may be when the person squeezes the hand of a loved one. It often takes weeks or months of therapy for the person who has been in a deep coma to be able to improve his or her speech and brain function. Sometimes the person has residual effects for life.
On "The Simpsons," Bart is allergic to butterscotch, and even to imitation butterscotch. However, it's difficult to find any mention of butterscotch allergy in medical literature (however, some butterscotch chips may contain traces of peanuts, making them possibly dangerous to someone with a peanut allergy). In an episode of "Desperate Housewives," Bree's husband Rex unknowingly eats onions, to which he is allergic. He ends up in anaphylactic (life-threatening) shock and goes to the hospital by ambulance. A severe allergic reaction to onions is actually rare. In fact, allergy to onions usually only causes mild symptoms, such as itching of the mouth -- not anaphylactic shock. Foods that contain proteins more likely to cause severe allergic reactions in susceptible people include shellfish and peanuts.
Read on to the next page to learn more about the conditions mentioned in this article.
HowStuffWorks talks to Caroll Spinney, the man behind the 'Sesame Street' characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969.
- ABC. "The Constant." (Sept. 19, 2011) http://abc.go.com/shows/lost/episode-detail/the-constant/82942
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "You and Your Baby." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.acog.org/publications/patient_education/ab005.cfm
- American Heart Association. "Cardiac Arrest." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.americanheart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/CardiacArrest/Cardiac-Arrest_UCM_002081_SubHomePage.jsp
- Diem, Susan J., Lantos, John D. and Tulsky, James A. "Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation on Television â€” Miracles and Misinformation." The New England Journal of Medicine. June 13, 1996. (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199606133342406#t=articleResults
- Home Box Office. "In Treatment: Amy." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.hbo.com/in-treatment/cast-and-crew/amy/index.html
- Lilienfeld, Scott O., et al. "Dissociative Identity Disorder and the Sociocognitive Model: Recalling the Lessons of the Past." Psychological Bulletin. Vol. 125, No. 5, pp. 507-523. 1999. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/Class/Psy394u/Bower/Xtra--Multiple%20Personality%3f/Lilienfeld%20-MPD.pdf
- Lupus Foundation of America. "Finally! It's a Lupus Diagnosis on House, M.D." Nov. 29, 2007. (Sept. 14, 2011) http://www.lupus.org/webmodules/webarticlesnet/templates/new_newsroomnews.aspx?articleid=1352&zoneid=59
- Mayo Clinic. "Coma." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/coma/DS00724/DSECTION=tests-and-diagnosis
- Mayo Clinic. "Food Allergies: Understanding Food Labels." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/food-allergies/AA00057
- Mayo Clinic. "Food Allergy." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/food-allergy/DS00082
- Mayo Clinic. "Getting Pregnant." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/how-to-get-pregnant/PR00103/
- Mayo Clinic. "Post concussion syndrome: Treatments and drugs." (Sept. 13, 2011)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/post-concussion-syndrome/DS01020/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs
- Mayo Clinic. "Lupus: Symptoms." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/lupus/DS00115/DSECTION=symptoms
- Merck Manual Home Edition. "Stupor and Coma." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/brain_spinal_cord_and_nerve_disorders/stupor_and_coma/stupor_and_coma.html
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Dissociative Identity Disorder." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.nami.org/Content/ContentGroups/Helpline1/Dissociative_Identity_Disorder_%28formerly_Multiple_Personality_Disorder%29.htm
- National Institutes of Health. "Food Allergy." MedlinePlus. (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/foodallergy.html
- National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. "Autism and Communication." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/voice/autism.htm
- National Institutes of Health. "Infertility." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001191.htm
- Peanutallergy.com. "Butterscotch Chips." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.peanutallergy.com/boards/butterscotch-chips
- Princeton University. "The Emergency Contraception Website." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://ec.princeton.edu/questions/risk.html
- Showtime. "United States of Tara." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.sho.com/site/tara/home.do
- Simpson Crazy. "Bart Simpson." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.simpsoncrazy.com/characters/bart
- Soapcentral.com. "About AMC: Who's Who in Pine Valley." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.soapcentral.com/amc/whoswho/lily.php
- Synapse. "Post Traumatic Amnesia -- Fact Sheet." (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.synapse.org.au/Acute-Phase/post-traumatic-amnesia-fact-sheet
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Systemic Lupus Erythematosus." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/lupus.htm
- University of Miami. "Posttraumatic Amnesia." (Sept. 13, 2011) http://calder.med.miami.edu/pointis/tbiprov/MEDICINE/coma6.html
- WebMD. "Infertility and Reproduction Guide: Your Pre-pregnancy Checkup" (Sept. 13, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/infertility-and-reproduction/guide/ready-to-conceive
- WebMD. "Mental Health: Dissociative Identity Disorder." (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/dissociative-identity-disorder-multiple-personality-disorder