We all know when our health is good. We have great energy, we feel good and our body works well for us, whether we ask it to do a long-distance walk, play with toddlers all day or put in long hours at the office.
But our body has its own warning system that works like the red-light warnings we get on our car dashboards. Usually, as with our cars, the problem isn’t serious and can be easily remedied, but occasionally the symptom we suffer – be it a headache or an unusual pain in our legs – can be a sign that something is awry. Sometimes, catching a serious illness early can be the difference between life and death, and in some cases, seconds and minutes matter.
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“The sooner you go to a doctor with one of these symptoms, the more chance your GP has of catching and treating the disease before it gets any more serious,” says Dr Atul Aundhekar, chief medical director of iCare clinics in Dubai.
“These symptoms can be part of what we call the ‘iceberg phenomenon’, because they present as minor surface symptoms, but underlying them is a much more serious issue, which can be life-threatening.”
Experts agree there are five top symptoms for which patients should seek medical help as soon as possible. While they might not be serious, the threat they pose is too great for them to be ignored.
SPREADING CHEST PAIN
What it could be: “If you feel as if you’re being squeezed very tightly, or the pain you’re experiencing is travelling up towards your shoulder or jaw, it may be that a blocked blood vessel is impeding the flow of oxygen to your heart,” says Dr Aundhekar. “Chest pain, a heaviness in the chest, palpitations or tightness in the chest could all be the sign of heart failure or a heart attack.”
Coronary heart disease occurs when the heart’s blood supply is interrupted by cholesterol-containing deposits, known as plaque, which build up in the arteries. A heart attack happens when that blood supply is completely blocked. Other symptoms include sweating and a feeling of impending doom.
Dr Davina Deniszczyc, well-being medical director for Nuffield Health in the UK, says, “In this case, getting medical attention quickly is the difference between life and death and seconds count. If you can get seen by a paramedic immediately, they can dissolve a clot before any damage has occurred.”
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What it might be: Milder diagnoses include stomach problems such as indigestion or muscular problems, especially if you have been doing something out of the ordinary the day before.
“Someone who has been doing a lot of push-ups or a new physical exercise or even some heavy lifting may find they have pains in their chest,” says Dr Aundhekar.
TINGLING FOOT PAIN
What it could be: Numbness and tingling in the feet could be a sign of diabetic neuropathy, says Dr Aundhekar.
This condition can occur in people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. A tingling like pins and needles happens when the nerves have been damaged by high blood-sugar levels associated with diabetes.
Over time diabetic neuropathy can cause a diabetic foot ulcer. If the ulcer becomes infected, there is a risk that the foot tissue will begin to die.
“This gets very serious if the foot gets gangrene because then you need to amputate,” says Dr Aundhekar.
Dr Deniszczyc adds, “Some people describe this feeling of numbness as walking on cotton wool because they have a lack of sensation and they can’t feel when they are injuring their feet… Diabetes can be diagnosed with a simple finger-prick blood test, which takes a few minutes. The earlier it can be diagnosed and managed the better, to prevent permanent damage.”
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What it might be: Foot tingling might be a sign that you’re deficient in vitamin B12, which can be easily rectified if you see your doctor. Other symptoms of this deficiency are feeling tired and looking pale, increased breathlessness, palpitations, a yellowing of the whites of your eyes (jaundice), headaches, poor concentration and a sore mouth and tongue.
Dr Deniszczyc says, “Numbness and tingling can also be down to lifestyle. If you’ve been sitting in a funny position, you may have been starving your muscles of oxygen and they start releasing toxins. The answer is to get up and move around!”
What it could be: Most people get a headache from time to time, but a severe headache, worse than any you’ve ever known, must be checked out immediately.
“A headache could be an initial symptom of a transient ischaemic attack (a mini stroke) or a cerebrovascular accident (a stroke),” says Dr Aundhekar.
“If a patient presents with a headache and tinnitus (ringing in the ears), there is a chance that they are suffering a bleed because of a rupture of an artery in the brain, known as an aneurysm. This is potentially life-threatening.”
Dr Deniszczyc says many brain tumours also cause dull, throbbing headaches, along with nausea and vomiting, which are often worse first thing in the morning.
“Patients with brain tumours often feel the pressure of the mass when they bend down or stoop,” she explains. “They usually realise the headache came on months ago and it never really went away.”
What it might be: “You may have a migraine or a headache due to sinusitis.
It may be something as simple as you are straining your eyes and you need reading glasses or you may have inhaled some chemicals you’re allergic to,” says Dr Aundhekar. Also, dental disease and upper respiratory tract infections can lead to headaches.
Dr Deniszczyc believes this type of headache may be caused by tension.
“A tension headache feels like a tight band around the head and it often comes on later in the day. It would be worth looking at your posture and head position if you get a lot of tension headaches. Otherwise, painkillers and relaxing will help to ease them.”
LOWER BACK PAIN
What it could be: An aching back that feels numb or a pain that starts in the buttocks and goes down the legs may be a sign of a PIVD, a prolapsed intervertebral disc.
“This can cause intense pain because of the compression of the nerve that passes through the spinal canal,” explains Dr Aundhekar. “If left untreated the gait will collapse and you will be unable to stand. A prolapsed disc can make people bedridden.”
PIVD is usually accompanied by weight loss, fever and bloating and is worse at night.
Dr Deniszczyc says this injury can often be traced back to trauma, such as a sudden jolt in a car crash, or an accident playing football.
“There is always a danger if the spinal cord is affected, and the sooner you get checked out, the better. This could mean the difference between being able to walk and being immobile.”
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What it might be: You may have pulled a muscle or have kidney stones.
Women may be suffering from a pelvic inflammatory disease, which can be treated quickly and easily. Dr Deniszczyc says a huge percentage of the population will have this type of pain from time to time.
“It comes on when you have done too much, like when you’ve moved house or you’ve started a new fitness regime after months of doing nothing active,” she says.
“A lot of people get this pain with weight gain – the extra pounds put pressure on the lower back, which is why many pregnant women get it too.
“You know when this pain is musculo-skeletal because you feel completely well everywhere else. Massage will help ease it, as will a hot water bottle or cold treatments like an ice pack.”
LEG PAIN WITH REDNESS AND WARMTH
What it could be: If you experience muscle cramps with warmth, redness and swelling, it could be a DVT (deep vein thrombosis), a blood clot that forms in the veins in your legs. “A DVT is always a worry for people on long-haul flights or who have spent a long time in hospital immobile,” explains Dr Deniszczyc. “Often people with a DVT complain of a pain in their calf, which feels hot to the touch… Standing on tiptoes will be really painful for your calf if you have a blood clot and if you look at both your legs there will be a significant difference in size – the leg with the clot will be swollen. Women who take the contraceptive pill are more susceptible to this kind of clot.
“The danger comes when the clot dislodges. The next organ for it to go to is the lungs, and if this happens, it could be fatal. This is worth getting checked out immediately, especially if you have no idea why it’s happened.”
What it might be: It could be a skin infection or bruises, but Dr Deniszczyc believes it’s even more likely to be an insect bite. “The area will be itchy and red and if a mosquito has bitten you, it can get very sore. It will also be shiny over the red area. An antihistamine will sort this out. If the bite has become infected, you may also need an antiseptic cream.”