12 WARNING SIGNS
For many men, to admit you’re hurting risks dealing with chides from buddies who may feel you’re being overly dramatic. Suffering through pain is a sign of machismo. But in some cases, ignoring or “toughing out” symptoms can put your health — and in some cases, your life — in danger. Here, experts talk about signs to never ignore.
SUDDEN, SEVERE DIZZINESS
When the room starts to spin for no foreseen reason, and you find yourself holding on to a wall or piece of furniture until it passes, you may want to get checked, says David Frid, MD, cardiologist with the Cleveland Clinic. “This type of dizziness (called syncope if you faint, or pre-syncope if less severe), could be a symptom of an underlying coronary artery disease or an arrhythmia, an abnormal heart rhythm.” A too-fast heart rate, called ventricular tachycardia, may also be behind the dizzy spell. At the other extreme, a too-slow heart rate could also cause lightheadedness. “Even if the symptoms come and go, they should never be ignored, especially if you actually pass out,” says Dr. Frid.
A sudden, severe headache that reaches maximum intensity instantly should always be checked, says Mark W. Green, MD, director of the Center for Headache and Pain Medicine and professor of neurology and anesthesiology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, NYC. “A cerebral hemorrhage is always a concern and cannot be excluded even if the headache goes away on its own.” Small hemorrhages may seal up on their own and go away quickly, but it doesn’t mean the next one won’t kill you, says Green. On occasion, migraines can feel explosive, and not all sudden “thunderclap” headaches are serious, but you should get to an ER immediately to rule out a hemorrhage, says Green.
PAIN NEAR YOUR BELLY BUTTON OR RIGHT SIDE
A pain that feels like a muscle strain may be something much more serious. Pain that starts off near your navel and travels over to the right side after about 12 hours may be the start of appendicitis, especially when accompanied by a slight fever, says Dr. Sameer Sayeed, an internist with ColumbiaDoctors of Somers, NY. “You may think they pulled something. You can ignore it for 24 to 48 hours, but if the appendix is obstructed long enough, the bacteria accumulates and breaks into the large intestine and abdominal cavity, transferring infection throughout the body.” This situation, known as a “burst appendix,” can be fatal. If you have fever, chills and this type of pain, go to the nearest emergency room for an examination, says Sayeed.
FEELING OF ANXIETY OUT OF NOWHERE
It’s one thing to feel anxious over giving a presentation in front of the CEO, but a panicky feeling out of the blue may be more than simple anxiety. “When the anxiety is accompanied by chest tightness or vague chest discomfort it can sometimes be related to coronary disease, aortic disease, or other serious conditions,” says Andrew M. Freeman, MD, cardiologist with National Jewish Health, Denver, CO. “Anxiety with a sense of something bad impending should be taken seriously, especially if it’s associated with chest discomfort, and it’s always better to seek medical attention.” If the symptoms occur with activity and go away with rest, coronary disease is more likely. See your personal physician or a cardiologist for further evaluation, especially if you have a family history of coronary disease, premature death, smoking or have high blood pressure or cholesterol, says Freeman.
INDIGESTION NEARLY EVERY NIGHT
Too much food or drink can keep you awake if you’re prone to indigestion, but if you feel the burn more than a few days in a row and over-the-counter medications don’t ease symptoms, it may be something more serious, says Maxwell Chait, MD, a gastroenterologist at Columbia Doctors Medical Group. Indigestion may be a sign of Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacteria linked to peptic ulcer disease and even gastric cancer, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (Dec 2012). The presence of H. pylori does not always result in an ulcer or gastritis, however. “You may not know you have it,” says Chait. “A simple breath test shows an active infection.” See a doctor if your symptoms occur at times other than when you eat, you have risk factors for heart disease (genetics, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.) and/or OTC meds don’t relieve your symptoms.
YOUR CALF IS TENDER AND FEELS LIKE IT’S ON FIRE
A sore calf may be more than a muscle pull, especially if you’ve been sitting for long hours in a car or on an airplane without moving around. That burning sensation could be a symptom of deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot that forms in a vein. “It’s different from a muscle cramp in that a cramp usually goes away after a few minutes or so and a blood clot persists,” says cardiologist Dr. Frid. “Ignoring it could result in the blood clot moving to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism (a blockage of a main artery in the lung).” Risks of developing a clot increase during prolonged periods of time sitting, especially if you’re not drinking enough fluids. You’re at a higher risk of developing a clot if you’re obese, a smoker or have a history of cancers. If you think you may have a blood clot, see a doctor as soon as possible or go to an emergency room. “Don’t put it off,” says Frid.
YOUR KNEE FEELS AS IF IT’S GOING TO GIVE OUT
If your knee feels as if it’s about to collapse under you while getting in and out of a car or walking downstairs, you may have an ACL tear. The ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) stabilizes the knee, so a tear can create feelings of instability, says David Geier, MD, orthopedic surgeon and director of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Athletes such as football or soccer players are prone to ACL tears, as they occur typically when changing direction or pivoting, but in some cases they can happen while simply walking. “If you had a specific traumatic injury you should see an orthopedic surgeon to determine if you suffered ligament damage that could cause your knee to buckle or give way,” says Geier. On the other hand, if the weakness in your knee developed over time or with no injury, strengthening exercises for your quads usually help it get back to normal, says Geier. Leg lifts with ankle weights are typically prescribed.
A PERSISTENT FEVER FOR MORE THAN A FEW DAYS
You expect a fever when you’re fighting off a cold or flu, but a fever that appears on its own without an accompanying sore throat and lasts for more than three days could be due to an underlying infection. “If you have a fever without cold symptoms and experience sweating or chills — especially night chills — you may have infective (or bacterial) endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves, says Dr. Sayeed.”This infection could be from a dental procedure.” Endocarditis occurs when germs enter the blood stream and attack the heart valve, often resulting in a leaky valve, and could be fatal if left untreated. If you recently had a dental procedure done and now have a fever, see a doctor immediately, says Sayeed. An underlying malignancy like leukemia or lymphoma may also be at work and can cause fevers that last for weeks.
SUDDEN FLASHES OF LIGHT IN YOUR FIELD OF VISION
Unless someone just took your photo with a flash, sudden flashes of light in your vision may represent a number of different disorders, says Sandy T. Feldman, MD, MS, ophthalmologist and founder of ClearView Eye & Laser Medical Center in San Diego. “Some can lead to visual loss without prompt treatment. These flashes may be one of the earliest symptoms of a retinal detachment.” Not all symptoms of flashing lights represent retinal detachments, but you should seek the care of an eye doctor immediately if you experience this, says Feldman. Factors that increase the risk of retinal detachment include nearsightedness, prior cataract surgery, trauma to the eye and a thinning of the retina called lattice retinal degeneration. Age-related changes and migraines may also cause light flashes.
PAINFUL POPPING DEEP IN THE SHOULDER JOINT
Joints that creak and pop aren’t always a reason for concern, and a shoulder that pops with overhead motion is common, says orthopedist Dr. Geier. “However, if the popping is painful, especially if it feels like it is coming from very deep within the shoulder, it could be the result of an underlying labral tear.” The labrum acts as a cartilage “bumper” along the socket in the shoulder, and it plays a role in the stability of the shoulder, Geier explains. “Labral tears can limit the ability of overhead athletes to perform the functions of their sports, and manual laborers have difficulty doing heavy lifting and other duties of their jobs.” If you experience a popping with pain, see an orthopedic surgeon to determine if a labral tear may be the cause.
Although women are more likely to experience urinary tract infections, men can also find themselves suffering from the same painful symptom. “Painful urination can be a sign of urinary infection in men of all ages and STDs in younger men,” says Culley Carson, MD, chief of urology for the University of North Carolina Hospitals. “It can also be a sign of an enlarged prostate or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) in older men. “The greatest concern for men experiencing this symptom is prostate or bladder cancer, especially when associated with hematuria (red blood cells in the urine) or elevated PSA, as in the case of prostate cancer, says Carson. Men should see their primary care specialist, who may then recommend an evaluation by a urologist.
THROBBING TOOTHACHE OR A CHIPPED TOOTH
Tooth pain can result from a variety of oral health issues, including decay, gum recession or gum infection due to impacted wisdom teeth and advanced periodontal disease that affects the tooth nerve, says Paul Kim, DDS, clinical director, northeast, of Great Expression Dental Centers based in Suffern, NY. “A toothache is like a fire alarm. The pain alerts you to a problem that, if caught early, can often be an easy fix.” Left untreated, you may not only lose one or more teeth, but a spreading infection may affect you systemically, causing potentially serious problems for other organs in the body. “Ignoring a chipped tooth can lead to further degradation and, ultimately, loss of the entire tooth if ignored.” In either case, get checked out by your oral health care provider immediately, regardless of whether the symptom eventually resolves itself on its own, as it often comes back worse than before.