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.
Four years ago, Emmetsburg, Iowa, insurance agent Jim Wirtz, now 65, had triple bypass surgery. Just 10 days later, he was back at the office. Three weeks after that, he received a clean bill of health from his doctors, who said he could do any physical activity -- except shovel heavy snow.
Wirtz took their advice, and he and his wife resumed having intercourse. "Stay in the game, whether it's sex or work," he says. "My own philosophy is, you just better live."
Wirtz is doing what doctors say most...
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 brainaneurysm. 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."