Down through the years I have heard many tragic stories about people who unwittingly failed to spot an impending health disaster coming their way. The general public’s understanding of these symptoms is sometimes tragically misinformed. It amazes me, how something as simple, as knowing when to see a Doctor urgently, is not thought religiously in schools. You don’t have to spend years understanding anatomy and physiology to understand when your health might be in grave danger!
There are a few recurring themes that we see a little bit too frequently. With heart attacks, strokes, aneurysms and cancer you frequently get warning signs. Some people just tragically fail spot them.
Let’s start off with cancer. It is far too common to hear of someone, who has ended up in Hospital out of the blue, and now has terminal cancer. People are shocked to hear that this can happen. How could someone, apparently in good health, be so seriously ill with terminal cancer so quickly? The truth is usually a little different. Tragically, when you talk to these patients a lot of them have unwittingly ignored seemingly “minor” new symptoms. Nothing is minor if it is a new change from the norm and consistently different. Some may have been suffering with mild fatigue; a new bowel habit change or a new minor but persisting pain or cough. It is not uncommon to hear people say, “this must be what happens when you get older” or “I must be just stressed”. Never attribute a new persistent change, however minor, to age or stress. See your Doctor first and if a few tests confirm you are right, then we can move on. But get the tests done first!
Next, we move on to recognising serious heart disease. You need to understand what is commonly suspicious for “heart” pain. “Heart” pain is usually described as a “tightness”, a “pressure” or a “burning” behind the breast bone or in the upper stomach area. This last point is important as people commonly misinterpret heart pain as indigestion! The pain from a heart attack will usually last at least 10-15minutes. Don’t be reassured if it resolves. Some people feel, that if the pain has gone by itself, it must not have been too serious. This is completely wrong! The pain may be gone but if this indeed was a heart attack, you are at significant risk of your heart stopping without warning over the next couple of days!
So now we know how to recognise serious heart disease. What about brain disease? Similar principals exist when it comes to anticipating an impending stroke. Do not ignore short lived speech disturbance, weakness or numbness especially on one side of the body. These suggest a possible “mini stroke”. These episodes may last only a few minutes but again people misjudge the seriousness of them. They believe that because they were only short lived or because they are now resolved, they must not be too serious. If this is you, you are at seriously high risk for a full blown stroke over the coming days and weeks. You need to see your Doctor today!
Then we have the case of “sentinel” headaches. These headaches are a warning sign of an impending brain haemorrhage. A “subarachnoid haemorrhage” (a catastrophic bleed on the brain) is preceeded up to 50% of the time, by this warning headache. Again, because it resolves, people unwittingly think they are in the clear. Unfortunately, failure to recognise this “sentinel headache”, means a subarachnoid haemorrhage follows in the upcoming days or weeks.
What distinguishes this warning headache from others is its classic, sudden and severe onset. Sudden means you know the exact second it came on eg ” I was combing my hair and then bang!”. Severe means severe eg “like being hit over the head with a baseball bat!” The aneurysm like a volcano is beginning to “erupt”. So act fast!
Speaking of aneuysms, the other bete noire of the medical profession is an abdominal aortic aneurysm (also known as a “AAA”). There is a classic saying that if a “AAA” bursts, that only 50% will survive the journey to Hospital and tragically 50% will die in the operating theatre. This means only 25% will survive! One of the reasons for this is because people unfortunately don’t know what type of typical pain to look out for. How would they! It’s rarely spoken about. But It’s not rocket science! If you are above 50, any flank pain with or without radiation to your groin needs to be investigated for a possible AAA. Act quickly and you should be part of the 25%!
Of course, most of these presentations are “classic” presentations. A lot of emergencies don’t present classically. You should certainly not overlook any “gut” feeling. When it comes to extreme dangers to your health, there are a lot of bullets flying around out there! But ally “gut” feeling to a knowledge of some of these common presentations and you should be able to dodge most of them!