Pain is the body’s warning signal that tissue is under threat or damaged. In most cases we know what will cause pain. Stubbing your toe. Cutting your finger. Strains and sprains. A blow. Inflammation without injury. However, there are instances where the cause of pain is not clearly identifiable. It may pass on its own within a short period of time. But it can be a symptom of a very serious disease and serve as an early warning that an upcoming event may be potentially life threatening.
Judging when pain is serious or not solely based on its intensity is not reliable. You can experience severe pain when you sprain your ankle but it is not life threatening. And you may experience mild pain with a heart attack and it can still be a major infarct that is deadly. When other symptoms like bleeding and redness are visible then it may be easier to assess the seriousness of the situation. However, this is not always the case. Pain may occur on its own with no other obvious symptoms.
Other Warning Symptoms
Sometimes the term pain and ache may seem confusing. Both are used interchangeably to a large degree. Generally an ache is a milder pain. It is typically dull in nature and with variations in individual pain threshold, some people may consider it to be more of a discomfort. Pain is more intense and at times even unbearable. It can be deceiving because in most cases an ache is not thought of as being serious in nature. But it can be. Even heart attack chest pain may feel like nothing more than an ache at times.
However, if you have any of the following or symptoms irrespective of whether the pain is mild or severe then you need to seek immediate medical attention.
- Weakness or paralysis
- Sudden visual changes
- Numbness or tingling
- Vomiting or coughing up blood
Any Pain In The Chest
Pain in the chest can be due to a host of different causes. It may originate from the esophagus (like heartburn), aorta (aortic dissection). heart (heart attack), lungs (like pulmonary embolism) or chest wall (like a broken rib). The most serious of these pains in an acute setting is cardiac pain which originates from the heart. But an aortic dissection or pulmonary embolism can be equally life threatening. A heart attack (myocardial infarction) is one of the more common cardiac conditions and can often be fatal.
A person who is at high risk of a heart attack and experiences sudden onset chest pain needs to seek immediate medical attention even if associated symptoms are not present. Generally the difference between cardiac and non-cardiac chest pain where a heart attack may be the cause is that the pain is crushing in nature and radiates to the left arm, neck or jaw, is accompanied by profuse sweating, there may be dizziness or the person may faint and there is some difficulty in breathing. Immediate medical attention is needed.
Very Bad Headache
Most headaches are not due to any serious or life-threatening cause. In fact it may not always originate from the head itself. There is a thinking that since the brain cannot feel pain then headaches are not “brain pain”. However, this is not always untrue. A brain hemorrhage (bleeding), tumor or meningitis may all present with a headache. Sometimes a headache is the only symptom and even in the most serious of conditions, the pain can be very mild and nothing more than an ache.
You should be concerned if a severe headache arises suddenly. On the other hand, however, it can develop gradually like with a brain tumor although a person may sometimes experience attacks of severe pain. Any disturbances in vision, nausea, poor coordination, confusion, memory loss, weakening or paralysis of a body part, difficult speaking or blackouts with a headache should be taken as serious symptoms. A stroke is one of the more serious conditions that is relatively common. Apart from a headache, the other symptoms tend to affect one side of the body only. Usually the patient will report episodes of similar symptoms that pass spontaneously. This is know as transient ischemic attack (TIA).
Leg Pain With Swelling
Pain in the extremities, like the arms and legs, is not often thought of as being potentially serious. However, if the pain is due to a condition like deep vein thrombosis (DVT) then it has potentially fatal complications. Deep vein thrombosis is when a clot forms in the deep veins of the leg. It is most dangerous when this clot breaks off and travels through the bloodstream. The clot can the lodge in the blood vessels to the lungs leading to a blockage. This is known as a pulmonary embolism and can result in death.
Leg pain in DVT may not always be present. But swelling of the leg is a major symptom that is almost always seen. The area may be warm to touch and discolored (pale, red or even blue). When the swelling is accompanied by severe pain especially in the calf or ankle, then it is a very serious symptom. The clot has possibly grown to a large size and detachment could be imminent. A pulmonary embolism presents with chest pain that worsens with breathing, coughing up of blood, severe difficulty breathing and other symptoms similar to a heart attack.
Intolerable Abdominal Pain
The abdominal cavity contains a variety of different organs that are closely packed together. Abdominal pain is common from childhood. In most cases it is acute and not serious in nature. However, there are several vital structures that lie in the abdomen and many acute diseases of the abdominal organs can have serious complications. Possibly even fatal consequences. Abdominal pain that is severe and worsening with other serious symptoms that also progressively worsen needs immediate medical attention.
The additional symptoms may vary significantly depending on the causative condition. Some of the more serious abdominal conditions that presents with intolerable pain include acute pancreatitis (pancreas), acute cholecystitis (gallbaldder), perforated stomach ulcers, intestinal blockage, acute appendicitis and strangulation of the bowels. The abdominal aorta may be the source of the pain and is discussed further under back injury. Pregnant women who experience persistent or worsening abdominal pain should urgently seek medical attention.
Back Pain Without Injury
Back pain is not uncommon. It is more frequently seen as a result of injuries. Apart from falls and blows to the back, lifting heavy weights which leads to muscle strain and sprained ligaments is another common cause of back pain. With age, back pain is often associated with degeneration of the disc between the spinal bones (intervertebral discs) and compression of the root nerves. One of the more serious causes of back pain is an aortic dissection, which can also present with chest pain or abdominal pain.
In an aortic dissection, there is a tear in the inner wall of the aorta. It can affect any part of the aorta. When it arises in the upper part of the aorta (thoracic aorta), then there is upper back pain and chest pain. When it affects the lower part of the aorta, then there is part in the lower back and abdomen. Both heart attack and stroke-like symptoms are also present. An aortic dissection is often fatal. However, early detection of an aortic dissection improves the outcome significantly and death may not necessarily be inevitable.