10 Mysterious Pains You Shouldn’t Ignore
by Discovery Health
All of us have experience with random, mysterious and sometimes lingering pains at some point in our lives. Most of us shrug it off, and usually the pain leaves the same way it arrived — on its own and without explanation.
These pains aren’t so different from the strange sounds your automobile makes from time to time. Something clicks, whirrs or squeals, and then the noise vanishes as quickly as it arrived. Those of us who aren’t mechanically inclined may think nothing more of it. However, just like your automobile, your body’s aches and pains often get worse over time, or signal a much larger underlying problem. In these cases, we ignore those warning signs at our own peril. Usually, doctors and mechanics alike wonder why we didn’t bring these problems to their attention sooner.
While not every pain you feel is indicative of a dire emergency, some mysterious pains simply shouldn’t be ignored. While few people are enthusiastic about going to a doctor, few doctors are enthusiastic about treating a medical emergency that they could’ve detected or treated before the problem snowballed into a potentially life-or-death matter.
So what mysterious pains shouldn’t you ignore? Keep reading to find out.
10: More Than Chest Pain
While this section focuses on heart disease, chest pain isn’t the only indication that something’s wrong. Take this scenario: It’s a hot summer’s day, and you’re working up a sweat mowing your lawn, which resembles a modest jungle. You stop to wipe your brow, when suddenly your jaw starts hurting. While heart disease runs in your family, everyone has trained you to look out for the fabled chest pain. So you think nothing of it. You reason that you may have clenched your jaw tightly while sleeping because of stress at work.
Unfortunately, your aching jaw could be a sign that your heart is stressed. Your jaw pain could serve as warning of an impending heart attack or a sign that one has just occurred.
Pain from a heart attack often shows up in places other than your chest: your shoulder, arm, abdomen, lower jaw or throat. Ignore the mysterious pain in your jaw, and that overgrown lawn you’re attempting to tame could be your ultimate undoing. If you do experience a sudden pain in your shoulder or jaw area — especially if you are at risk of heart disease — stop what you’re doing, alert someone and seek medical attention. There aren’t many good reasons why your jaw or the length of your arm would suddenly start throbbing with pain, and a doctor’s investigation of what’s happening could add years to your life.
9: Lower-back Pain
Pain in the lower back is one of the most common pains people encounter and, as such, ignore. Most days, at least one person you know will complain of a bad back, and it makes it easy to deal with the pain when it happens to you. In fact, back pain is the leading cause of job-related disability.
Every year, Americans spend nearly $50 billion trying to take care of their lower back pain [source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke]. The high price tag points not only to the frequency of Americans’ lower-back troubles, but also to the complexity of that region of our bodies. Our backs contain most of our bodies’ infrastructure — muscles, tissues, nerve bundles, spines and vertebrae. Without these structures, our bodies would resemble nothing so much as a pile of unstructured flesh, like jellyfish.
But sometimes lower-back pain is a symptom related to kidney trouble. The pain may relate to the formation of a kidney stone, which will usually pass (painfully) on its own. If your kidney is infected, it will swell, causing the discomfort in your lower back. If a kidney tumor has grown large enough, it will cause pain in the lower back, as well.
You should always get back pain checked out, since ignored problems with your back can become chronic problems that only worsen over time. Being vigilant about finding the cause of pain in your lower back could save your kidneys — and your life.
8: Severe Abdominal Pain
When our stomachs start clenching and doing somersaults after we’ve eaten food that’s been left out on a buffet table for too long, there’s no doubt what’s causing the discomfort. But other times, there’s no clear cause for the pain. Your torso is a busy place, and an unusual pain in your abdominal area could be a sign that any number of things has gone wrong.
Problems with nearby organs such as kidneys, lungs or the uterus could result in abdominal discomfort. Pain in your lower-right abdomen may mean your appendix is inflamed, and that means a quick removal is in order.
Upper-right-abdominal pain could signal a problem with your gall bladder. Upper-abdominal pain (along with upper-back pain) may be a sign of pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. Rest, intravenous fluids and antibiotics may resolve this condition.
Abdominal pain also could point to an intestinal blockage. If not immediately treated, this can result in death of intestinal tissue and other problems. And finally, a swollen liver due to hepatitis could cause the excruciating pain in your gut. There are different forms of this viral disease, some of which (hepatitis C) can cause liver failure.
Nothing causing abdominal pain is good news, but each condition is the type of bad news you want to get sooner rather than later. If you have unexplained, recurring or sudden abdominal pain, see your doctor immediately.
7: Calf Pain
Sore calves often mark the day after a good run (or a long climb up steep stairs). But sometimes calf pain — especially when not linked to any type of injury — may mean something else is amiss, and it’s something you definitely don’t want to ignore.
Your leg has a network of arteries and veins that move blood to and from your muscle and heart. The veins you can see beneath your skin are called superficial veins, and they move blood farther into the muscle itself, toward deep veins. Little valves inside the veins prevent blood from flowing the wrong way. However, clots may form due to a rupture in the vein, damage to a valve or an injury to the leg. This is a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The pain stems from the clot’s presence causing a blood flow blockage, which results in swelling.
If a clot breaks loose — an event called an embolism — it could travel through your body, block an artery in the lung or brain, and damage your lung — a pulmonary embolism — or cause stroke. This doesn’t usually happen, but when it does, it can be very serious and potentially deadly. Doctors usually prescribe anticoagulation drugs and keep tabs on the clot to make sure it’s not growing. People with DVT who are overweight or who smoke should make lifestyle changes, as both of these factors increase the risk and severity of DVT.
6: Burning Sensations in Hands or Feet
If you’ve ever left your legs crossed too long, you’ve likely experienced an almost-painful tingling sensation in your legs and feet caused by decreased blood circulation. Fortunately, the tingling goes away quickly once you’re standing and moving about, but while it’s there, it feels like a cruel combination of pain and tickling.
If your feet or hands feel this way even when you haven’t folded yourself up like a pretzel for too long in front of the television, it could be sign of nerve damage. Symptoms such as tingling, numbness and a burning sensation all point to peripheral neuropathy.
Peripheral neuropathy has many causes, including diabetes, alcohol abuse, vitamin B-12 deficiency and other disorders such as shingles. Injury, infections and toxins can also cause nerve damage. Often — though not always — treating the underlying cause of the tingling causes the painful sensations in your affected body parts to go away. Aspirin and over-the-counter analgesics sometimes help relieve symptoms, but antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, physical therapy or surgery have a greater chance of reducing or eliminating the burning sensation.
It’s important to seek treatment for this condition because the reduced sensation means you’ll be less likely to notice injuries to your feet or hands. Injuries left unchecked can become infected, opening the door to a completely new set of problems.
If you’re diabetic, getting your blood sugar under control will prevent further nerve damage (among other complications that arise from this disease) and may improve the existing symptoms of peripheral neuropathy.
5: Vague, Random, Unexplained Pains
Usually pain in a certain part of your body signals that something in that area needs attention. In fact, this is the how pain benefits us. Being the wise, nonprocrastinating person you are, you tell your family doctor about this. Then, the unexpected (though not entirely unwelcome) occurs: Your doctor performs tests like X-rays or an MRI, only to discover no obvious cause of the mysterious pains you’re experiencing.
You may have fibromyalgia, a mysterious condition that results in aches and pains, and affects more women than men. Fibromyalgia seems to result in heightened sensitivity to physical pressure or pain, and often involves sleep difficulties. Currently, no definitive test for fibromyalgia exists, but doctors will work to rule out other possible causes of your pain before making a diagnosis. This condition is treatable with physical therapy and analgesics, but researchers still have much to learn about it.
It’s incredible, but depression can also cause “floating,” random and otherwise unexplainable pains in various parts of your body. This may manifest in the form of back pain, headaches and heightened sensitivity to pain.
How can this be? It turns out that pain and emotion travel down some of the same neural pathways in your brain. For some people, it seems that neurotransmitters carrying news of gloom and doom can jump the tracks and result in actual physical pain. Usually, antidepressants, therapy or some combination of the two helps to resolve the depression and, with it, the pain.
4: Testicular Pain
You should never ignore testicular pain, as it often indicates a condition that could get worse — much worse — if ignored for too long. Anything from a hernia to cancer can cause testicular pain. The spermatic cord could be twisted, causing testicular torsion, which causes excruciating, fall-to-your-knees pain. Ignore it at your testicles’ own blood-starved peril.
If you’ve taken a direct hit to the jewels lately, the pain may go away in the following days, or be a sign of a hematocele, in which blood pools between the protective sacs of your scrotum. Inflammation of the epididymis, a coiled tube located in the back of each testicle that serves as a storage and delivery system for sperm, can also cause testicular pain. If the discomfort in your testicle accompanies a tactile sensation that your scrotum is full of noodles, you’ve likely got varicose veins, known as varicoceles.
There’s little in the way of good news if you suddenly feel testicular pain, and ignoring it in hopes it will go away may cause you to lose a testicle. The thought of it is enough to give you a headache, which we’ll discuss next.
3: Thunderclap Headaches
While headaches often appear to come out of nowhere, some headaches descend incredibly fast, striking like a clap of thunder. While they may soon pass as most headaches do, this mysterious and sudden occurrence could be a sign of something much more serious than a headache. If your headache causes nearly blinding pain, it could be a sign of stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA).
Strokes happen when a blood clot or piece of plaque in the body’s veins or arteries breaks loose and travels through the body, eventually making its way to the brain. When this happens, the clot may temporarily or partially block an artery, resulting in a TIA, or it may fully block the blood flow, causing a stroke.
In addition to a sudden headache, other signs of TIA and stroke involve neurological or cognitive difficulties, such as trouble speaking or walking. In fact, people may suddenly fall while standing or walking. In the case of TIA — often referred to as a “mini-stroke” — the symptoms include dizziness, temporary visual problems or simply trouble holding a pen.
Either way, get immediate medical attention. Strokes call for clot-busting drugs to restore blood flow to brain tissue, and TIA episodes are often followed at some point by a real stroke. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something’s not right, so give your doctor a chance to discover what’s wrong before it’s too late.
2: Pelvic Pain During Intercourse
If you’re a woman, you’ve no doubt seen the warning found on any box of tampons: leave a tampon in place too long, and complications may arise, including pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
One common symptom of PID is pain or discomfort in the pelvic region during sex. PID is a bacterial infection of the uterus or fallopian tubes that results in red, swollen and painful tissue. The inflammation can cause scarring, which can lead to problems such as infertility.
PID can also result in the formation of abscesses, or chronic pelvic pain. Sexually transmitted diseases — most often chlamydia or gonorrhea — or any source of bacteria that travels up to the reproductive organs are the usual suspects for PID. Left unchecked, the infection can spread to the blood or other tissues of the body. If a fallopian tube is infected and not treated, it could burst.
PID affects three-quarters of a million women each year, and one out of 10 becomes infertile as a result [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. The pain may not be severe and may accompany other symptoms like frequent urination or abdominal pain. Early detection is important since doctors often can treat PID with antibiotics. However, in cases where the condition isn’t detected early, surgery may be required.
Ovarian cysts can also cause pelvic pain, and while cysts often go away on their own, they may require medical intervention. Next, we’ll look at a common ailment that sometimes has mysterious origins.
1: Persistent Joint Pain
Osteoarthritis — generally age-related wear and tear to cartilage that causes bones to rub together — is a common source of joint pain, but it’s not the only one.
Stiffness and swelling of the joints may be caused by lupus, a disease that cycles through periods of flaring up and remission. Other symptoms of lupus include fatigue, hair loss and fever.
Hepatitis, a condition that affects the liver, also claims joint pain as a symptom. Need a good reason to get that joint pain examined by a doctor? Hepatitis is responsible for more liver transplants than any other condition [source: MedlinePlus]. Many other infectious diseases — such as measles and chicken pox — can also cause joint pain.
Then again, it could be arthritis, but a more serious form of it: rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that your immune system goes haywire and attacks your own tissue. This causes inflammation of not only the joints themselves, but of tissue surrounding the joints and even of other organs in your body. The result is pain and the breakdown of your joints. It’s important to get medical attention as soon as symptoms present themselves to limit damage to your body — while medications can alleviate discomfort and swelling, tissue damage is permanent.
Art by jacques gamelin