By Fred Ouma
IF your chest could speak, it would probably scream whenever it experiences pain: â€œI am in trouble, please take me to a doctor.â€ Even as the depository for the brain, your head has no sense to communicate its discomfort than through an excruciating pain.
If it had its way, it would probably stop for a while and remind you to tend its discomfort. Even though they cannot speak to us, different parts of our body have a unique way of telling us that something is wrong; pain.
Experts say pain is our bodyâ€™s way of seeking the much needed attention. It is a call for action, one that we should not ignore.
Below, doctors in internal medicine, cardiology and psychiatry explain the pains that one must not ignore.
â€œIf you have a cold, it could be a sinus headache,â€ says Dr Edward Kigonya an expert in internal medicine at Mulago Hospital. â€œBut you could have a brain haemorrhage or brain tumour with any pain, unless you are sure of what caused it, get it checked out.â€
Kigonya says if someone says he or she has the worst headache of their life, â€œthat may be a sign of a brain aneurysm (brain failure due to poor blood circulation). Go immediately to the emergency room.â€
Pain or discomfort in the chest, throat, jaw, arm and abdomen
Chest pain could be pneumonia or a heart attack. But be aware that heart conditions typically appear as discomfort, not pain.
â€œDo not wait for pain,â€ says Tom Mwambu of the Uganda Heart Institute at Mulago Hospital.
â€œHeart patients talk about pressure. They will clench their fist and put it over their chest or say it is like an elephant sitting on their chest.â€
The discomfort associated with heart disease could also be in the upper chest, throat, jaw, left shoulder, arm or abdomen and might be accompanied by nausea.
â€œIf a person has unexplained, persistent discomfort and knows they are high risk, they should not wait,â€ says Mwambu, also the president of Uganda Medical Association.
â€œOften people delay because they misinterpret it as heartburn or distress. Visit a physician. If it turns out to be something else, that is great.â€
He says intermittent discomfort should be taken seriously. â€œThere might be a pattern such as discomfort related to excitement, emotional upset or exertion.
For example, if you experience it when gardening, but it goes away when you sit down, that is angina. It is usually worse in cold or hot weather.â€
â€œA womanâ€™s discomfort signs can be more subtle,â€ says Mwambu.
â€œHeart disease can masquerade as gastro-intestinal symptoms such as bloating, distress, constipation or abdominal discomfort. It is also associated with feeling tired.
The risk for heart disease increases dramatically after menopause. It kills more women than men even though men are at higher risk. Women and their physicians need to be on their toes.â€
Still have your appendix? Do not flirt with the possibility of a rupture. Gallbladder and pancreas problems, stomach ulcers and intestinal blockages are other possible causes of abdominal pain that need immediate attention, experts say.
Pain in lower back or between shoulder blades
â€œMost often it is arthritis,â€ says Dr. Kigonya. Other possibilities include a heart attack or abdominal problems.
â€œOne danger is aortic dissection (when the aorta â€” the main vessel which takes blood to the heart becomes weak), which can appear as either a nagging or sudden pain.
People who are at risk have conditions that can change the integrity of the vessel wall. These include those with high blood pressure, a history of circulation problems, smoking and diabetes.â€
Burning feet or legs
Nearly one-third of people who have diabetes are undiagnosed, according to the Uganda Diabetes Association. â€œIn some people who do not know they have diabetes, burning sensations in the feet and hands could be one of the first signs,â€ says Marcel Otim a specialist diabetologist at Kampala Diabetes Centre.
â€œIt is a burning or pins-and-needles sensation in the feet or legs that can indicate nerve damage.â€
One of the lesser known dangers is deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot that can occur in the legâ€™s deep veins. It affects more than five million people a year and can be life-threatening.
â€œThe danger is that a piece of the clot could break loose and cause pulmonary embolism, a clot in the lungs, which could be fatal,â€ says Otim.
Cancer, obesity, immobility due to prolonged bed rest or long-distance travel, pregnancy and advanced age are among the risk factors.
Medically unexplained pains
â€œVarious painful, physical symptoms are common in depression,â€ says consultant psychiatrist, Fred Kigozi. â€œPatients will have vague complaints of headaches, abdominal or limb pain, sometimes in combination.â€
Because the pain might be chronic and not terribly debilitating, depressed people and health care professionals might dismiss the symptoms.
â€œThe more depressed you are, the more difficulty you have describing your feelings,â€ says Kigozi, who is also the director of Butabika Mental Hospital.
â€œThis can lead the clinician astray.â€
Other symptoms must be present before a diagnosis of depression can be made. â€œGet help if you lose interest in activities, you are unable to work or think effectively and cannot get along with people,â€ he says.
Kigonya advises that depression should be treated aggressively before it causes structural changes in the brain.