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7 Pains You Shouldn't Ignore

Experts describe the types of pain that require prompt medical attention.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Whoever coined the term "necessary evil" might have been thinking of pain. No one wants it, yet it's the body's way of getting your attention when something is wrong. You're probably sufficiently in tune with your body to know when the pain is just a bother, perhaps the result of moving furniture a day or two before or eating that third enchilada. It's when pain might signal something more serious that the internal dialogue begins:

"OK, this isn't something to fool around with."
"But I can't miss my meeting."
"And how many meetings will you miss if you land in the hospital?"
"I'll give it one more day."
Etc.

You need a guide. WebMD consulted doctors in cardiology, internal medicine, geriatrics, and psychiatry so you'll understand which pains you must not ignore -- and why. And, of course, if in doubt, get medical attention.

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No. 1: Worst Headache of Your Life

Get medical attention immediately. "If you have a cold, it could be a sinus headache," says Sandra Fryhofer, MD, MACP, spokeswoman for the American College of Physicians. "But you could have a brain hemorrhage or brain tumor. With any pain, unless you're sure of what caused it, get it checked out."

Sharon Brangman, MD, FACP, spokeswoman for the American Geriatrics Society, tells WebMD that when someone says they have the worst headache of their life, "what we learned in medical training was that was a classic sign of a brain aneurysm. Go immediately to the ER."

No. 2: Pain or Discomfort in the Chest, Throat, Jaw, Shoulder, Arm, or Abdomen

Chest pain could be pneumonia or a heart attack. But be aware that heart conditions typically appear as discomfort, not pain. "Don't wait for pain," says cardiologist Jerome Cohen, MD. "Heart patients talk about pressure. They'll clench their fist and put it over their chest or say it's like an elephant sitting on their chest."

The discomfort associated with heart disease could also be in the upper chest, throat, jaw, left shoulder or arm, or abdomen and might be accompanied by nausea. "I'm not too much worried about the 18-year-old, but if a person has unexplained, persistent discomfort and knows they're high risk, they shouldn't wait," says Cohen. "Too often people delay because they misinterpret it as [heartburn] or GI distress. Call 911 or get to an emergency room or physician's office. If it turns out to be something else, that's great."

He tells WebMD that intermittent discomfort should be taken seriously as well. "There might be a pattern, such as discomfort related to excitement, emotional upset, or exertion. For example, if you experience it when you're gardening, but it goes away when you sit down, that's angina. It's usually worse in cold or hot weather."

"A woman's discomfort signs can be more subtle," says Cohen, who is director of preventive cardiology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. "Heart disease can masquerade as GI symptoms, such as bloating, GI distress, or discomfort in the abdomen. It's also associated with feeling tired. Risk for heart disease increases dramatically after menopause. It kills more women than men even though men are at higher risk at any age. Women and their physicians need to be on their toes."

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