According to the National Institute of Health, approximately one in four Americans have experienced pain lasting for longer than twenty-four hours. Yet, more often than not, the solution is simply, “Just take an Advil.” But here’s the thing: Pain—especially pain you’ve experienced for a whole day or longer—can be an indicator of a far more serious medical condition.
Sure, sometimes it’s just a random ache, or a byproduct of the aging process. But, as they say—and as these 15 insidious conditions prove—it’s better to be safe than sorry. If any of the following conditions set off your alarms, give your doctor a call.
Sudden Lower Back Bain
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, approximately 80 percent of adults will experience some form of lower back pain at some point in their lifetime. What’s more, to take it from a study published in Spine, a full quarter of those adults will experience such pain at least once every three months.
The only condition that’s more common than lower back pain is, fittingly, the common cold. Here’s the thing about lower back pain, though: Yes, more often than not, it’s just that—a bit of pain. But, in rare cases, it can be something far worse.
As Yera Patel, PT, DPT, CSCS, an orthopedic physical therapist at Kessler Rehabilitation in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, points out, sudden and severe lower back pain paired with bowel or bladder difficulties can be a sign of cauda equina syndrome (CES), a condition that results from something—say, a slipped or ruptured disc, or a tumor—pressing on the nerves at the base of your spine. CES requires emergency surgery. If left untreated, it can cause permanent incontinence as well as possible lower body paralysis. Far better to visit the ER and rule the condition out.
Kym McNichols, a medical journalist, warns that soreness in the legs is a common pain that should be always taken seriously, as it’s the type of condition that may signal other, deeper issues.
Specifically, leg soreness can point to the presence of peripheral artery disease (PAD), a narrowing of the blood vessels that heightens the chances of suffering a stroke or heart attack, and impacts nearly 5 percent of Americans.
A result of a build-up of plaque in the legs, PAD often signals that the presence of other dangerous plaque build-ups throughout the body, “as arteries are like the human superhighway” she explains. Unfortunately, says McNichols, “many don’t know it until it’s too late because they brush off the symptoms as simply part of aging.”
If you’re exercising by, say, recreating the Rocky “steps” scene, sure, it’s normal to experience pain and soreness in your calves the next day. If such pain comes out of left field, however, it may signal the presence of a serious condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), says Chirag Shah, MD, an emergency medicine physician and former Medical Director at Accesa Health medical center in Torrance, California.
DVT is a condition in which a blood clot forms in a deep vein, typically in the legs, causing pain and inflammation. Individuals are particularly at risk after long periods of immobility, such as a transatlantic airplane flight, or a weekend spent loafing around.
The dangers surrounding DVT are quite severe and “can lead to life-threatening conditions if not evaluated and treated appropriately,” says Shah. Primarily, this is because blood clots from the leg can detach and travel upwards to the lungs or other crucial organs, blocking vital blood flows.
However, if caught early enough, DVT can be treated and its risk severely decreased through a combination of blood thinner medication, lifestyle changes, and compression stockings, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Eye pain has become increasingly ubiquitous in the digital age. The Cleveland Clinic estimates that almost 90 percent of computer users experience what is called Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) and which can result of stinging eyes, sensitivity to light, and blurred vision.
However, while CVS is one cause of eye pain that is relatively harmless and can be overcome by altering your screen’s glare, another cause may be a deeper, more intractable issue known as optic neuropathy.
Optic neuropathy is a condition involving inflammation around the optic nerve which damages nearby nerve fibers and “is a frequent cause of vision loss,” according to the journal Clinical Ophthalmology.
In addition to pain, symptoms may also include decreased visual acuity and washed-out colors, and the pain itself typically worsens with eye movement. Fortunately, according to the Mayo Clinic, optic neuropathy can be treated with steroids with vision typically recovering close to normal levels within 12 months if attended to by a physician immediately.
Inner Wrist Soreness
Seeing as your wrist is made up of a collection of small bones—along with two large ones—and wrapped in very little protective tissue, it’s no surprise that “wrist pain is a frequent complaint,” as Jonathan Cluett, MD, writes on VeryWell Health.
While many of these complaints may be ascribed to soreness, if the pain occurs where your thumb meets your wrist, it may be a sign you are suffering from something called De Quervian’s tenosynovitis.
Currently, the cause of the condition is unknown, though one thing is for certain: it’s quite painful. And, according to the Mayo Clinic, if left untreated, the pain can spread into your thumb and all the up your forearm, making it difficult to grip objects.
On the other hand, if you catch it early enough—within the first six months—it can be treated and eradicated with regular physical therapy sessions.
Left-Side Jaw Pain
Heart issues don’t always present themselves in the form of chest pain. In fact, jaw pain may be an indicator that a heart issue is at play—especially among women. According to the Cleveland Clinic, women in particular may “feel a pain that is specific to the left, lower side of the jaw.”
While it may appear unrelated to vital organs—and more likely than not the result of excessive grinding of teeth—such pains are often reported just weeks or months before a heart attack.
As for the apparent strangeness of jaw pain being related to heart issues, the Clinic explains: “When there is a problem with the heart, it triggers nerves in that area, but you sometimes feel pain elsewhere.”
Bone Pain Paired with Digestive Issues
As you age, bone pain may feel like a natural part of the body’s response to wear and tear. It could also be chalked up to a pre-existing injury, osteoporosis, or arthritis. However, the Mayo Clinic warns that experiencing bone pain is also a common symptom of multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that affects plasma cells.
This is particularly true when it is coupled with nausea, constipation, or loss of appetite.
While multiple myeloma doesn’t always require treatment, it may cause lasting bone pain which can result in increasing discomfort and eventually require surgery for alleviation. In addition to making it easier to stop the possible spread of the cancer, this is why it’s crucial to address lingering bone pain with a professional before it worsens.
Upper Back Pain
Yes, back pain—of all forms—is extremely common. As a result, it often ends up obscuring serious health concerns. But when it comes to upper back pain, you shouldn’t ignore any pangs. Serious pain could indicate an aortic dissection—a tear in the inner layer of the aorta that, if untreated, is often fatal.
A relatively uncommon disorder which primarily affects men in their 60s and 70s, aortic dissections are known for mimicking other issues, “often leading to delays in diagnosis,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
One of the symptoms: sudden, severe upper back pain that radiates to the neck down the back. And while the pain alone isn’t enough to instantly warrant an aortic dissection diagnosis, it’s always best to double-check. As the Mayo Clinic says, “early detection and treatment may help save your life.”
Unrelenting Lower-Right-Side Stomach Pangs
“Abdominal pain is challenging [to diagnose] in that we all get it at times,” says Jack Springer, MD, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. Nonetheless, “pain that is severe and does not relent readily, and that moves to or is mostly in the right lower belly could be acute appendicitis.”
This is particularly the case if the pain is not associated with any trauma, nausea, or loss of appetite.
Appendicitis affects approximately 5 percent of the population, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and requires immediate surgical removal. If left untreated, the appendix would burst, resulting in peritonitis—an infection of the abdominal organs that would eventually cause them to fail, leading to death.
From time to time, almost everyone experiences neck stiffness and pained movement. Often, it’s the result of an irregular, uncomfortable sleeping position. However, such pains may also signal a much deeper issue: meningitis.
Meningitis is an inflation of the membranes surrounding the spinal cord and often begins to show symptoms—primarily, a stiff, pained neck and a sudden fever—within hours of infection. While uncomfortable, this sudden onset is good news hidden in disguise: Meningitis can become fatal “within days,” according to the Mayo Clinic, so you want to catch it as soon as possible.