We asked the experts to tell us five signs that your body is telling you something. And why you should do something about it. (Namely, call your doctor.)
If you’re saying the words “worst headache of my life,” says Camelia Davtyan, clinical professor of medicine at UCLA, it’s time to make a call.
“It may be caused by an aneurysm that can burst and lead to sudden death,” says Davtyan.
Or it could be bleeding on the brain, encephalitis, meningitis or some other viral or bacterial infection within the spinal fluid, said Joshua Miller, medical director at the Cleveland Clinic’s Strongsville Family Health Center.
“The headaches that worry us are ones that start suddenly, like a thunderclap,” Miller says. “Especially if it’s accompanied by a stiff neck, nausea, fever, bright lights bothering your eyes.”
Some chest pain is obvious—and obviously alarming. “A squeezing pressure, elephant-sitting-on-your-chest feeling,” says Miller. “You may have nausea and shortness of breath and feel your heart fluttering.”
But some symptoms are less noticeable. Miller said to be mindful of how your body recovers from activities you’re used to performing.
“If you climb a flight of stairs every day and you usually feel fine, and then one day you get to the top and feel short of breath, panting, a little pressure in your chest, you shouldn’t ignore that,” he said. “We worry about cardiovascular events, aortic dissections, an impending blockage of a blood vessel in the heart, possibly pneumonia.”
“People may think it’s heartburn,” says Davtyan, “particularly women.”
“It may be attributed to digestion problems and ignored,” says Davtyan, “But it may be caused by appendicitis or kidney stone, which can get worse quickly if not treated.”
Pay particular attention to pain that’s accompanied by a fever or vomiting.
“If there’s a fever or so much pain that you’re unable to eat or drink, you’ve got potential gall bladder diseases, appendicitis, something infectious going on,” says Miller.
And be mindful of a recent change in your bowel movements.
“If you’re having severe diarrhea or black or bloody stools, it can be a warning sign of an abdominal aneurysm,” says Miller. “This is something we get particularly concerned about in our elderly patients because it can also mean low blood flow to the colon. If it’s not acted on quickly you can end up needing emergency surgery.”
Who among us doesn’t have a sore back, right? Sit up and take notice, however, if yours is accompanied by tingling and numbness in your feet and toes.
“Tingling and numbness don’t happen with a simple back strain,” says Davtyan. “It may be a disk herniation that can progress if not treated.”
“Back pain is probably the most common symptom we see,” says Miller. “As with anything, worsening of the symptoms and pain that’s escalating are what you want to watch for.
“There could be underlying issues such as cancer, but most often it’s not going to be. It could be one of the disks between vertebrae has become infected. It could be a compression fracture in the back. You want to pay attention to the patient’s age, whether there’s a family history of osteoporosis, whether there’s been trauma to the back within the past few weeks.”
Unexpected Weight Loss
Few of us are going to complain if our clothes start fitting a little looser, particularly in a nation with a 26 percent obesity rate. But unintentional weight loss, Miller says, is “very concerning.”
“It’s a time to get a really good history of what’s been going on, review your symptoms from head to toe and get some blood work done,” he says. “Gastrointestinal symptoms can signal malabsorption issues such as celiac disease, where your body’s not absorbing nutrients properly.
“It can also signal depression or, often in the case of elderly patients, early signs of dementia. They may think they had a sandwich for lunch but, in fact, they forgot to eat. It can be one of the first signs.”