I once had a patient who checked in to the hospital as she was having a major heart attack. As it turned out, she'd been experiencing intermittent chest pain and nausea for weeks, without realizing that these symptoms can signal impending cardiac crisis.
Everyday aches are a part of life—especially as we age. But before you brush off your symptoms, as so many people do (one survey found that 70 percent of people delayed seeking medical attention for a sharp pain), take note of the five warning signs you should never ignore:
Spreading Chest Pain: If the pain is creeping up to your shoulder and jaw, or you feel intense pressure (like you're being tightly squeezed), a blocked blood vessel may be impeding the flow of oxygen to your heart. What to do: Call 911 and take one full-strength aspirin. When you get to the hospital, an EKG can determine if you're having a heart attack.
Numbing Lower Back Pain: An aching back that also feels numb or pain that starts in the buttocks and extends down the back of your legs may be signs of a herniated (slipped) disk. This occurs when a portion of a spinal disk ruptures and presses on the nerve. What to do: A physical exam by your doctor can usually diagnose the problem. Nonsurgical treatments, such as rest, painkillers, and simple strengthening exercises, will relieve symptoms in more than 90 percent of patients, but if the pain continues, you may need surgery to remove the disk.
Tingling Foot Pain: You're probably familiar with the fiery sensation that develops after a long day in four-inch heels. But if the pain is accompanied by a pins-and-needles feeling, you could have nerve damage in your feet. One surprising culprit: diabetes. What to do: A blood sugar test can diagnose diabetes. Diet and exercise, blood sugar monitoring, and medication can prevent further damage.
Severe Headache: Migraine sufferers are more than familiar with severe headaches. But extremely acute pain—imagine the worst headache of your life—can signal a ruptured blood vessel in your brain, known as an aneurysm. What to do: Because the escalating pressure in your skull could reduce the oxygen supply to your brain, this symptom requires an immediate trip to the ER. The doctor will likely perform a CT scan to check for hemorrhaging, then surgeons will work quickly to drain the excess fluid and repair the vessel.
Leg Pain with Redness and Warmth: You may be tempted to chalk it up to muscle cramps, but if you also experience swelling, redness, and warmth, it could be deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot that forms in the veins of your legs. If the clot breaks free, it could travel through your bloodstream and cause a pulmonary embolism (a blockage of the arteries that supply your lungs with blood). What to do: Don't try to massage away the pain—doing so could cause the clot to break loose. Instead see your doctor, who can diagnose DVT using an ultrasound. You may need blood thinners to help dissolve the clot.