ain affects us all, whether it’s minor aches and pains or a chronic, longer-lasting condition. And while we all occasionally have a little twinge here or little ache there — especially as we get older — it's important to know when we can treat it ourselves and when it might be a sign of something serious.
Whenever pain strikes suddenly and there is no obvious explanation, it's hard to avoid worrying that it could be cancer or some other serious condition.
"As a general rule, anything that lasts more than six weeks is a red flag," says Stephanie Haridopolos, M.D., a board-certified family physician in Merritt Island, Fla.
There's no one-size-fits-all standard for determining when to seek medical treatment for pain, but there are questions to ask that will help you make that decision, Dr. Haridopolos told Health Radar. Pain that occurs first thing in the morning generally is less serious than pain later at night; pain that doesn't improve with rest should be checked out by a physician; so should pain that’s worse when you’re in a certain position, she said.
"If you have stiffness and it gets better, you don’t have to see a doctor," Dr. Haridopolos explained. "But if it's something that doesn’t improve despite trying things like over-the-counter drugs, see a doctor."
Most often, muscle pain is related to tension or muscle injury from exercise or physically demanding work, according to the National Institutes of Health. But it also can be a symptom of something more serious.
Neck and back: Dr. Haridopolos advises paying particular attention to pain in your neck or back. "If it's accompanied by weakness in the extremities, pain, or numbness that radiates down your arms or legs, or a burning sensation, that’s also a red flag," she said.
Night Headaches: Pain accompanied by "systemic symptoms," such as fever or night sweats, could be a sign of an infection or malignancy and should prompt a call to your doctor, she said. Likewise, headaches in the middle of the night, accompanied by a change in vision or vomiting, require immediate care.
Is It Cancer? Some pain, particularly back pain, is to be expected as we get older, Dr. Haridopolos said. For example, men 20-50 shouldn’t be alarmed at experiencing back pain first thing in the morning, but with stretching and exercise, it should ease. But you should see a doctor immediately if you begin experiencing back pain at age 50 or older or if you have a history of cancer, osteoporosis, steroid use, or drug or alcohol abuse.
Younger in life, rheumatoid arthritis begins slowly with morning stiffness, fatigue, and pain primarily in the wrists, fingers, knees, feet, and ankles, according to Dr. Haridopolos. Osteoarthritis, which usually appears by middle age, is the result of aging and wear and tear on joints, and can be the source of pain, particularly early in the morning. Psoriatic arthritis, however, can produce pain at the end of fingers or toes as well as other joints, including the spine. Psoriatic arthritis requires treatment, she said.
When your pain isn't chronic or due to a serious disease, there are common-sense steps you can take to be more comfortable.
Dr. Haridopolos recommends:
- Stretching and exercising for muscle pain and stiffness.
- Maintaining your body mass index within normal limits. Avoid becoming overweight or obese, since those extra pounds put stress on your back, legs, and other body parts.
- Cutting down on sugary foods. Avoiding foods with a high glycemic index, which cause water retention, swelling of the joints, and discomfort. Cutting back on processed foods.
- Using topical treatments like Aspercreme or Biofreeze. Use Epsom salts in a warm bath.
- Using over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, although topical treatments are safer than oral medications.
The full version of this article appeared in Health Radar newsletter. To read more, click here.
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