Awaiting medical test results can be unnerving, especially if you don’t understand exactly what the tests mean or what the seemingly arbitrary numbers indicate. And things can get a lot more confusing if specialized labs are being run.
Always ask questions of the ordering physician or nurses to ensure you understand what is being done and why. Abnormal values (numbers falling outside the range specified) may not be a concern or could even be an expected result. Without that knowledge, though, you may find yourself falling down a rabbit hole on health websites.
Hopefully the information below will help make sense of exactly what some common labs mean, why they are ordered, and when to worry if your results fall outside the “normal” window.
Cholesterol has been a hot topic in the medical world for over a decade and is closely monitored because of its correlation to heart disease. A cholesterol panel contains several different measurements will typically contain:
LDL – “bad” cholesterol that can build up in arteries and is often linked to heart disease, diabetes (type II), and obesity
HDL – “good” cholesterol that helps keep arteries supple and clear (think Omega 3s)
Triglycerides – fatty deposits that ca
n build up in arteries and make them narrower and more difficult for blood to pass through
Total Cholesterol – The overall cholesterol level in the blood
This panel is done routinely and often as a preventative measurement. Doctors will likely get a baseline panel done even in young patients and then annually or every 3 years thereafter depending on levels and any treatment regime. There are myriad lifestyle, diet, and medication options to improve cholesterol numbers.
Diabetes is another hot topic in the medical world, especially in Western Societies. A main indicator of diabetic issues is a simple blood sugar measurement that can be obtained from a finger poke. However, other common tests also screen for and monitor diabetes. Often you will see a Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP) ordered to screen for diabetes as well as overall metabolic health. This panel typically consists of 14 individual tests:
Albumin – protein made by liver
ALT – enzyme from liver and heart, shows liver damage
AST – checks for liver damage (in conjunction with ALT)
ALP – screens liver, gallbladder, and bones
BUN – kidney and liver function indicator
Calcium – common mineral in our bodies that affects muscles, hormones and bones
Bicarbonate – Carbon dioxide – shows overall acidity in body (alters with infections, etc).
Chloride – electrolyte that can show dehydration or kidney function
Creatinine – works with BUN to show kidney function
Glucose – blood sugar (note: a single reading is not diagnostic, but can indicate issues)
Potassium – electrolyte important for muscle (including heart) function
Sodium – electrolyte especially important for brain function
Total Bilirubin – waste product from blood cell death (normal) that shows liver function
Total Protein – building block for cells/organs that affects fluid shifts
If you have diabetes or another disorder that causes swings in blood sugar throughout the day, your doctor will likely order a test that shows an average of blood sugar over the previous 3 months. This test is commonly called an A1C and is an accurate indication of how controlled your blood sugar is.
Testing urine is a great way to gauge overall health and can tell doctors a lot of information about body functioning. Typically, this test is ordered if an infection is suspected, but may also be used in screening for other disease indicators (diabetes, kidney function, etc).
Complete Blood Count (CBC)
Arguably the most routine blood panel ordered, both for baseline values as well as screening for infection or other illness. This is another panel that contains several individual tests that together, give doctors a good overall view of how the body is functioning. These tests are:
RBC – Red blood cell count – shows amount of red blood cells (help deliver oxygen and nutrients to all cells of the body)
RDW – monitors for nutrient deficiency/anemia
MCV – in conjunction with RDW, will determine severity of deficiency
Hematocrit – how much space the red blood cells occupy in the blood. Shows hydration status.
HGB – Hemoglobin – a protein that binds to oxygen to deliver it to cells and carries CO2 to be released.
MCH – average amount of HGB in each cell
MCHC – this with MCH gives an idea of how much oxygen carrying power the red blood cells have
WBC – White blood cell count – shows how many white blood cells are present (high numbers indicate infection)
Platelets – clotting agent and tissue regeneration, indicates bleeding risk
There are 2 forms of CBC panel, one with differentiation and one without. A CBC with diff will show the different types of white blood cells and their values. CBC without diff will only show total white blood cell value.
Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH)
Specific test ordered if a thyroid dysfunction is being ruled out. If necessary, other thyroid specific tests may also be ordered.
The above tests are all commonly ordered as the first step when doctors are trying to diagnose what is going on in their patients. Many of the panels/tests will be ordered at some point just for baseline values so any changes can be caught early when it is easier to intervene.
Each value will have a “normal” range listed that can vary slightly by institution/lab. Small deviations from the "normal range" are often not a cause for concern, but only the ordering doctor can make that determination for sure. Grossly abnormal lab values will typically be addressed by the doctor or nurse in a phone call, so as a general rule any lab results in an online health portal without contact from the doctor office will fall into the expected range.