At age 33, Kelly Gregory of Hendersonville, TN, started having “sharp and tight” pains in her chest. She exercised regularly, didn’t smoke, and was in good health, so she wasn’t alarmed.
A month later, she had a heart attack. She had five of them during the next 4 months before her heart doctors were able to figure out the problem: She had a genetic mutation that causes clotting. The chest pains were emergency flares, letting Gregory know something was wrong.
It can be tricky to know when your pain is normal and when you should worry. Sometimes, your body might be telling you to get help.
Chest, Shoulder, Arm, or Jaw Pain
“Sometimes people will describe it as an elephant sitting on their chest,” says Pam R. Taub, MD, a cardiologist in San Diego. “It's a heaviness, and a very severe pain, and it’s often associated with shortness of breath.”
Heart attack pain often spreads to other parts of the body, like your:
Women’s symptoms are often different from men’s, Taub says. They might have fatigue or shortness of breath.
“Many women will blow off things like sweating, thinking it's a hot flash,” she says. “But women have much more of these nonclassic symptoms that could be attributed to something else.”
“Get to the nearest ER as soon as you can,” Taub says. “The ER is there for exactly these types of situations. We have great interventions for heart attacks. They’re time sensitive, though, so don't ever hesitate to go get things checked out.”
A Bad Headache
Your head feels like it’s splitting open, and nothing in your medicine cabinet is helping. What could it mean?
“Most people worry that it's a brain tumor,” says Gretchen E. Tietjen, MD. She’s chairwoman of neurology at the University of Toledo Medical Center in Ohio.
- Other symptoms like stiff neck, fever, confusion, weakness, or numbness
- Pain like you’ve never felt before
- Throwing up
Other clues your headache’s not normal:
- It gets worse when you stand up.
- The pain gets worse over time, and meds aren’t helping.
- You have a family history of certain conditions.
Tietjen says your doctor will also want to know if your headache came out of nowhere.
“If all of a sudden, bam! you’re hit with severe pain, it might be what’s known as a ‘thunderclap headache,’ ” Tietjen says. “You could be having an aneurysm, and you should go to the emergency room right away.”
Lower Back Pain
Believe it or not, this could be a symptom of heart disease. Your doctor can decide if that’s the case.
“We’d want to know your risk factors,” Taub says. “Do you have diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity? And on top of that, are you having these symptoms with activity or with exertion? All of these are risk factors for heart disease.”
Often, back pain comes from normal wear and tear on your muscles. But in serious cases, it can also be a sign of:
- Ruptured disc
- Kidney stones
You can also have back pain just before something called an aortic dissection. That’s when the main blood vessel to the middle and lower parts of your body bursts. It’s a very serious problem. See a doctor right away for your back pain if blood vessel problems run in your family.
If you still have your appendix, pay attention to pains in your middle. If it bursts, you’ll have to get to an emergency room right away. It can cause a serious, life-threatening infection.
Your appendix might be causing your pain if:
- It hurts in the lower right side of your abdomen
- Pain is worse after a doctor pushes on your stomach
- You have nausea or are throwing up
Belly pain can also be a sign of:
Hand and Foot Pain
Diabetes puts you at risk for disorders that can damage the nerves in your body. It can happen anywhere, but it’s common in hands, arms, feet, and legs. The longer you’ve had diabetes, the higher your risk of nerve damage.
“Pain due to peripheral neuropathy is often described as ‘pins and needles’ or ‘shooting,’ ” says Deborah Wexler, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The pain often happens at night, Wexler says. You may also lose feeling in your hands and feet. If you’re diabetic, you might not feel pain in your limbs because of numbness. You could even have an infection and not know it.
If it spreads or becomes severe, a doctor may have to amputate the affected limb.
Pain You Can’t Put a Finger On
Aches and pains that won’t go away could be a symptom of depression or anxiety.
- Arms and legs
Christine Penguino of Atlanta has dealt with anxiety since she was a teenager. It always seemed to show up with a side of tummy troubles and headaches.
It wasn’t until she was in her mid-20s that her doctor solved the puzzle. They adjusted her meds in an attempt to stop her belly aches. “They make a significant difference in both my mental and physical symptoms,” Penguino says.