WASHINGTON (AP) — It's a growing side effect of modern medicine: A test for one condition turns up something completely unrelated. It might be a real danger, or an anxiety-provoking false alarm.

Doctors dub this the dreaded "incidentaloma" — so-called incidental findings that tell people more than they bargained for, things they might not need or want to know.

A presidential advisory council said Thursday it's time to be more up-front about that risk with patients before their next X-ray or gene test turns up a disturbing surprise.

"Incidental findings can be life-saving, but they also can lead to uncertainty and distress," cautioned Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

It's an issue that "will likely touch all of us who seek medical care, participate in research, or send a cheek swab to a company for a peek at our own genetic makeup," she said.

It may seem obvious that if your family doctor orders X-rays for a broken rib that also spot signs of cancer, you'll be told. But Thursday's report notes that not every medical condition that can be found should be — and there's conflicting advice about how to disclose and manage incidental findings.

Consider: Ten percent of brain scans spot something unrelated that may require more testing, said bioethics panel member Dr. Stephen Hauser, neurology chairman at the University of California, San Francisco.

Anywhere from 30 percent to 43 percent of abdominal CT scans turn up incidental findings, according to studies cited by the commission. In fact, the bioethics report said that at trauma centers, these high-powered scans that aim to find subtle injuries instead are more likely to make an incidental finding.

And say a doctor maps your child's genes to help diagnose some puzzling muscle symptoms — but also discovers genes that may trigger breast cancer after she's grown. That incidental finding has implications for other relatives, too.

Sometimes, surprise findings can be life-saving, for example in the case of an athlete whose brain is scanned after a concussion, and radiologists spot a tumor, Hauser said.

Other times, nothing can be done. That same brain scan might show early signs of an incurable condition, Hauser said, and "this young person now needs to live with the knowledge that she may someday develop this neurologic disease."

Follow-up testing may do harm. The panel's worst-case example: Doctors see a suspicious spot on a lung while testing an elderly patient's risk of a stroke. A biopsy determines the spot is nothing, a benign scar — but that biopsy makes the lung collapse, triggering cardiac arrest.

Nor do patients necessarily want to know everything the doctor learns. A cancer survivor may agree to be X-rayed for broken bones after a fall. But if she doesn't want to know about any signs of returning tumors, it's ethical for the doctor to respect that decision, Gutmann said.

The bioethics panel is urging better anticipation of and communication about how they handle these surprises. Among the recommendations:

—Doctors, researchers and direct-to-consumer companies alike should inform potential patients about the possibility of incidental findings before they undergo a medical test. They should clearly explain what will and won't be disclosed, so patients can make an informed decision about whether and how to proceed.

—Professional groups should develop guidelines about incidental findings common to different tests, and how to handle them.

—The government should fund more research into the costs, benefits and harms of identifying, disclosing and managing different incidental findings.

—Health workers should explore the pros and cons of test results with patients ahead of time, in what's called shared decision-making, to learn what they don't want to be told.

The opt-out provision differs from guidelines issued earlier this year by the American College of Medical Genetics. That group says laboratories should automatically notify doctors if genetic tests turn up any of about 50 genes linked to two dozen diseases that might be treatable or preventable if discovered early.

"When people go into these kinds of tests, you never think it's you, that you're the one that's going to have something found," explained ACMG executive director Michael Watson. "We didn't think they should opt out of hearing about those results prior to the test."

People should be educated about incidental findings in time to consider how they'd want to handle one, said Dr. Sarah Hilgenberg of Stanford University, who told the bioethics panel about her own experience. As a medical student, Hilgenberg enrolled in a study of memory that scanned her brain. Researchers weren't obligated to reveal the suspicious spot they found but did — letting her get treatment for an abnormality that otherwise might have triggered dangerous bleeding.

"I would imagine it doesn't ordinarily cross people's minds," said Hilgenberg, who praised Thursday's recommendations.

Also on HuffPost:

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  • Getting To Sleep Late

    <strong>We always hear you should spend some time away from screens before bed -- but if you <em>have</em> to work late one night, is it better to spend time unwinding, even if it means staying up a bit later, or is it better to just go right to bed?</strong> I am a big proponent of consistent <em>wake</em> times. Bed times, in my opinion, are much less important; if a patient is consistent with their wake time and routines, bed times usually take care of themselves. Plus, deemphasizing when an individual goes to bed often helps remove the performance anxiety we associate with insomnia. For me, this one is a no brainer: Unwind first, if you feel like you need it. If you are someone who can go to sleep without that down time, knock yourself out. --W. Christopher Winter, M.D., medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Va.

  • Restaurant Indulgences

    <strong>If you've decided to indulge in one thing while out for a meal, which should it be: the bread basket or dessert?</strong> I think it's better to share a dessert (of course be the last to taste so there's only a bite or two left). The bread basket is a trigger point for the whole meal. Once people make the choice to have the bread they are subconsciously choosing to let the whole meal go and they ultimately end up eating dessert too. If you save it for dessert (eating clean the whole meal before and skipping the bread), you'll save a ton of calories. --Heather Bauer, R.D., CDN, founder of bestowed.com and HuffPost blogger

  • Walking In Heels

    <strong>More steps are almost always better -- but is it still worth walking that extra bit if you're wearing heels?</strong> No! I do not subscribe to walking in heels for exercise being a good idea. High heels shift your body weight to the ball of your feet and misalign your whole skeleton. Exercise in this body position makes you very prone to injury to knees, hips, back and feet. Exercising later in more appropriate shoes is ideal. Everyone wants to get in as much physical activity as possible, but putting yourself at risk for injury and trauma isn't smart. Exercise should be done with the goal of strengthening your body, not causing harm. Sneakers are always best for physical activity. --Jackie Sutera, D.P.M., podiatrist in New York City

  • Tackling Your To-Do List

    <strong>If you're really stressed about your to-do list, should you tackle the biggest or the smallest item first?</strong> When we are really stressed we need a positive experience, and one that can be accomplished pretty soon. So pick something, but not the biggest or the most difficult; instead, something that can realistically be tackled and done. Then congratulate yourself for doing that and pick another, then another, then another... --Lloyd Sederer, HuffPost mental health editor and Medical Director of the New York State Office of Mental Health

  • Rushing At The Gym

    <strong>If you only have 15 minutes to exercise, is it better to opt for cardio or weight training?</strong> If you only have 15 or 20 minutes to work out, your goal should be to subject your body to an ideal combination of muscular strain and cardiovascular stress. While this may sound unpleasant, it's going to give you the most bang for your buck if you want to get lean, strong and fast in as little time as possible. To achieve this effect, use any of my favorite resistance training exercises that "crossover" to also be cardio exercises, including: Dumbbell or Kettlebell Swing, Squat to Overhead Press, Turkish Get-Up, Uphill Sprints Holding or Carrying a Weight and Burpees. --Ben Greenfield, fitness and triathlon expert, Get-Fit Guy podcast host

  • Fat Vs. Protein

    <strong>If your only protein choice for hours is high in saturated fats, should you eat a bit, or skip it?</strong> Personally I would try my best to avoid a high saturated fat protein source.  It would probably make me feel sick.  People who eat a lower fat diet and then dive into a high fat meal tend to complain of stomach aches.  When you look at the nutrient analysis for protein sources that are high in saturated fat like fried fish, the amount of protein is very low.  Therefore a protein source that is high in saturated fat may not always be your best source of protein. Best bet is to plan ahead.  I always carry nuts or roasted edamame in my purse to fill in any gaps of missing protein in my meal. --Toby Smithson, R.D., founder of <a href="http://diabeteseveryday.com/">DiabetesEveryDay.com</a>

  • Early Morning Workout?

    <strong>We all know how important sleep and exercise are for our health -- so if you got a bad night's rest, is it better to sleep in for an extra hour, or push through your morning workout?</strong> From the fitness expert: One of the most important recovery, mental and immune system boosting activities for the human body is sleep. If you're short on sleep, you experience higher levels of inflammation and a decrease in the hormones that help you lose fat and stabilize your appetite. For this reason, you should never sacrifice sleep to exercise -- as you're likely to put your body into an unhealthy state. --Ben Greenfield, fitness and triathlon expert, Get-Fit Guy podcast host From the sleep expert: It is better to get up at your usual time to keep your body clock on consistent timing. --Philip Gehrman, Ph.D., clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania

  • Midnight Snacks

    <strong>We've heard it's not great to nosh late at night -- but if you haven't had a chance to eat dinner all evening, is it better to eat late or go to bed starving?</strong> Eat something but more <em>snack</em> size rather than meal size. Having a gnawing hunger or eating too much food both will lead to poor sleep quality. Try 1/4 cup tuna salad (homemade/healthy mayo), six multi-seed crackers and cut fresh veggies. --Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author of The Flexitarian Diet

  • Bad Breakfast Choices

    <strong>Ideally we'd be prepared -- but if you're stuck in an all-morning meeting and the only food choice is a pastry, is it better to eat it or skip breakfast?</strong> SKIP IT. There is nothing actually filling about a pastry -- no fiber, no water -- so it wouldn't help my hunger. In fact, many times eating something high in sugar like this will lead to an energy crash, so I wouldn't be full and it makes me tired. No thank you! (I have apples and almonds at my office for situations like this.) ----Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author of The Flexitarian Diet

  • Should You Google?

    <strong>Pouding headache? A weird pain in your side? When you have an unusual system, is it a good idea to Google your symptoms to be a better informed patient, or does searching the internet for a diagnosis only put you at risk for cyberchondria?</strong> We all know the saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that's certainly true when you think you know more than you do!  Medical information emphasizes the dire, with good reason.  It is the most dire explanation for any given set of symptoms that most needs to be found, and addressed.  That by no means indicates it is the most likely, however. But while a little knowledge is a potentially dangerous thing, total ignorance is even more so.  Doctors are human, and fallible.  Mea culpa!  There have been times I have come faster to a correct diagnosis, or considered something important, because my patient came to me armed with a Google search, and asked me: 'what about ______?' So, yes -- Google your symptoms.  But do so reasonably, and humbly.  Reasonably means prioritize credible sites- not those devoted to conspiracy theories.  One very good portal is healthfinder.gov.  Humbly means to remember that an hour of Internet surfing is NOT a substitute for four years of medical school and several more of residency training.  So, use a Google search to generate good questions- but not to cultivate a passion for any given answer.  There have been times I have struggled mightily to disabuse a patient of a false conviction based on a wayward Internet search, and we have both suffered for it.  Don't let that be you. Informed is empowered, and is much better than uninformed.  But misinformed and unwilling to recognize it may be the worst of all. Google accordingly! --David Katz, M.D., founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center

  • Late-Night Fight

    <strong>If you're having a disagreement with your partner late at night, is it better to "never go to bed angry" or "sleep on it"?</strong> Most psychologists will recommend that people take the time that they need to calm down to think rationally about conflicts.  They are much more likely to develop effective solutions or understand another person's perspective when they aren't upset.  Sleep does allow time to pass, and many people report that they are able to view their situation from a different angle the following day.  Perhaps one exception is when a person is unable to fall asleep at all because they are so angry.  In these situations, addressing the problem before bed may provide some closure. --Steven Meyers, professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Ill.