As a cardiac surgeon, I’ve encountered people with all kinds of aches and pains. And I can say with certainty that pain is one of our bodies’ most complex, misunderstood warning systems. Sometimes it means that we simply overdid it at the gym, while other times it can be a sign of something much more serious—even deadly. In fact, knowing how to recognize these five most dangerous pains might just save your life.
1. Thunder and lightning headache
Headaches can range from annoying to downright debilitating. But there’s one type that really worries me. This headache comes without warning, feels like an intense explosion and can have devastating consequences. People almost always describe it as “the worst headache of my life,” and it’s usually the result of an aneurysm (an abnormal balloon that grows out of the wall of a weakened blood vessel) bursting in the brain. It can lead to stroke or even death if not treated quickly. Fortunately, recognizing this headache and getting to the hospital quickly can improve your odds of survival. While some people are born with aneurysms, most of us aren’t. And good lifestyle habits—like not smoking and controlling your blood pressure—go a long way in preventing them from rupturing or even happening in the first place.
2. Vise grip around your chest
If you experience progressively worsening tightness in the centre of your chest that radiates down your left arm or up to your neck and jaw, it may signal a heart attack. I worry because many women wait too long to seek help, perhaps thinking the pressure is too mild to be a real heart attack. Be aware of that. And if you also experience nausea, heartburn, shortness of breath, sweating, back pain, sleep disturbance or weakness, seek help immediately. Proper treatment within an hour hugely improves your chances for a full recovery.
3. Severe abdominal pain
Major discomfort in your right upper abdomen may be caused by gallstones blocking your gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small sac attached to the liver that stores a fat-digesting fluid called bile. Too much cholesterol in the bile can lead to stones, which are usually harmless but can cause the gallbladder to become inflamed. If the inflammation progresses, the gallbladder can rupture and require an immediate operation. Prevent gallstones by keeping a healthy weight, exercising and avoiding foods high in saturated and trans fats.
4. Stabbing pelvic pain
Sharp, severe pain in the lower abdomen or pelvis, often accompanied by vaginal bleeding, could point to a life-threatening ruptured ectopic pregnancy. This occurs when a fertilized egg implants somewhere other than the uterus. While you can’t prevent ectopic pregnancy, recognizing it early can help avoid rupture. So if you think you’re pregnant and you’ve had a previous ectopic pregnancy or STDs, or you smoke, make sure your doctor rules this out, generally through a pelvic exam.
5. Swollen, tender leg
We all have occasional soreness in our legs, but when the pain is in only one calf and accompanied by swelling, take it seriously. This could be the sign of a clot in the veins of your leg called a deep-vein thrombosis (DVT). The big problem with a DVT is that a piece of the clot can break off, travel to your lungs and cut off your oxygen supply. To help prevent a DVT, stay well hydrated and stretch often during long trips.
Dr. Oz is Chatelaine’s on-call medical expert. The Dr. Oz Show airs every weekday on CTV at 4 p.m. ET and 3 p.m. CT. For more health advice from Dr. Oz, click here.