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7 Pains You Shouldn't Ignore

Experts describe the types of pain that require prompt medical attention.

No. 3: Pain in Lower Back or Between Shoulder Blades

"Most often it's arthritis," says Brangman, who is professor and chief of geriatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. Other possibilities include a heart attack or abdominal problems. "One danger is aortic dissection, which can appear as either a nagging or sudden pain. People who are at risk have conditions that can change the integrity of the vessel wall. These would include high blood pressure, a history of circulation problems, smoking, and diabetes."

No. 4: Severe Abdominal Pain

Still have your appendix? Don't flirt with the possibility of a rupture. Gallbladder and pancreas problems, stomach ulcers, and intestinal blockages are some other possible causes of abdominal pain that need attention.

No 5: Calf Pain

One of the lesser known dangers is deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot that can occur in the leg's deep veins. It affects 2 million Americans a year, and it can be life-threatening. "The danger is that a piece of the clot could break loose and cause pulmonary embolism [a clot in the lungs], which could be fatal," says Fryhofer. Cancer, obesity, immobility due to prolonged bed rest or long-distance travel, pregnancy, and advanced age are among the risk factors.

"Sometimes there's just swelling without pain," says Brangman. "If you have swelling and pain in your calf muscles, see a doctor immediately."

No. 6: Burning Feet or Legs

Nearly a quarter of the 23 million Americans who have diabetes are undiagnosed, according to the American Diabetes Association. "In some people who don't know they have diabetes, peripheral neuropathy could be one of the first signs," says Brangman. "It's a burning or pins-and-needles sensation in the feet or legs that can indicate nerve damage."

No 7: Vague, Combined, or Medically Unexplained Pains

"Various painful, physical symptoms are common in depression," says psychiatrist Thomas Wise, MD. "Patients will have vague complaints of headaches, abdominal pain, or limb pain, sometimes in combination."

Because the pain might be chronic and not terribly debilitating, depressed people, their families, and health care professionals might dismiss the symptoms. "Furthermore, the more depressed you are, the more difficulty you have describing your feelings," says Wise, who is the psychiatry department chairman at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Fairfax, Va. "All of this can lead the clinician astray."

Other symptoms must be present before a diagnosis of depression can be made. "Get help when you've lost interest in activities, you're unable to work or think effectively, and you can't get along with people," he says. "And don't suffer silently when you're hurting."

He adds there's more to depression than deterioration of the quality of life. "It has to be treated aggressively before it causes structural changes in the brain."

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Reviewed on January 27, 2010

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