You expect your dermatologist to check your body for suspicious moles, but you probably don't expect her to be the first to catch a potentially serious problem with your ovaries. It may sound odd, but research shows that many diagnoses can come from unexpected sources. Here, the surprising questions you should ask your specialists.
The Eye Doc
Ask: "How's my cholesterol?"
In 65 percent of cases, optometrists and ophthalmologists notice signs of high cholesterol before any other health provider, according to a study of more than 200,000 Americans. Elevated cholesterol can cause yellowish plaques to lodge within retinal blood vessels. "By dilating pupils and using ocular tools, we're able to look at the blood vessels in the back of the eye in real time, allowing us to spot the signs of high cholesterol noninvasively," says optometrist Rupe Hansra, senior director of eye care for LensCrafters.
Ask: "Do I have diabetes?"
Red, swollen gums may signal more than just lax flossing habits—they could indicate that you're suffering from diabetes. "High blood sugar can interfere with the body's immune response, so gums become more susceptible to inflammation from bacteria, leading to gingivitis," says periodontist Sally Cram, DDS, based in Washington, D.C. "I've had patients with mild cases of diabetes that I was the first to notice because changes to their gums were so pronounced."
Ask: "Could I have PCOS?"
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal imbalance associated with infertility, is characterized by irregular periods, ovarian cysts, and higher levels of hormones called androgens. "Many symptoms of excess androgen are manifested on the skin—like acne along the jawline and dark hair on the face and chest," says Rachel Reynolds, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. In fact, up to 92 percent of PCOS sufferers have excess hair growth, while up to 35 percent experience breakouts. "Dermatologists are trained to pick up on certain skin patterns, so we're able to connect the dots others may miss," says Reynolds.
Ask: "Are my cold feet a sign of peripheral artery disease?"
High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage the inner layers of arteries, making them more vulnerable to the accumulation of fatty plaques. This, in turn, can lead to a condition called peripheral artery disease (PAD), in which the arteries in your limbs begin to narrow and harden. "When the narrowing occurs, one of the first organs to lose blood flow is the skin," says podiatrist Megan Leahy of the Illinois Bone and Joint Institute. While it's unclear why PAD is more common in lower extremities, beware if the skin on your feet turns thin and shiny and feels unusually cold. Early detection is critical, since PAD puts you at risk for stroke and heart attack.
Ask: "Could my cancer be back?"
Among women whose breast cancer recurs within ten years of an early diagnosis, 70 percent will have a metastatic form of the disease that has spread to their bones. The symptoms regularly include unexplained pain in the back, hips, and upper arms. Kristy Weber, MD, chief of orthopedic oncology at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, who has treated many patients with recurring breast cancer, says, "The most common place for the cancer to spread is to the thoracic spine in the upper back." Letting your doctor know you're a breast cancer survivor may help her discover the disease's recurrence sooner.
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