7 symptoms to look out for
Learn the telltale signs of seven health problems and what to do about them, making changes now will protect your health in the long term.
1. Back problems
Back pain is very common, with around one in six of the population in England affected, according to research by Arthritis Research UK.
What is it?
Back pain has many possible causes; muscle strain, poor posture, a ‘slipped’ disc and more.
Pain, which can be anything from a dull ache to a sharp pain when you move in a certain way.
Aching or pain in your hips and thighs. This may be referred pain that stems from a problem in your back.
Shooting, stabbing or burning pain that may travel down your legs or arms. This is often caused by an irritated nerve and can be accompanied by tingling or numbness. Pain that shoots through your buttock and down one leg is called sciatica and is caused by compression of the sciatic nerve.
Keep moving as much as you can as too much rest can make matters worse. Gentle stretching exercises, such as yoga or pilates, can often help, as can over-the-counter anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen, although check with your pharmacist that they’re suitable for you. See your GP if your back doesn’t get better after a few weeks, or your pain is severe and it’s difficult to carry on with daily activities.
Severe pain or lack of sensation following an accident requires emergency treatment. You should also seek immediate medical help if you experience a loss of feeling in your legs, loss of bowel or bladder control, or difficulty passing urine.
2. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
What is it?
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a common long-term condition that usually starts in your 20s and affects the digestive system. The exact cause isn’t known but flare-ups can be triggered by certain foods, stress and infections, although this differs from person to person.
Stomach pain or cramps. This may get worse after eating and improve after a bowel movement. Some people also experience backache or nausea.
Your abdomen may feel swollen and uncomfortable, and you may pass wind more than usual.
Changes in bowel habits. This could mean diarrhoea or constipation, or a mixture of both.
You may also find it harder to sleep.
Urinary problems. You may need to go more often or feel you can’t fully empty your bladder.
If you think you have IBS, check with your GP to rule out other causes. This is especially important if you have new symptoms and you’re over 40. Treatment depends on individual symptoms and diet often plays a part, says Dr Laurence Maiden, consultant gastroenterologist at Benenden Hospital. “Fermentable sugars, or FODMAPs, can cause gas, distension and pain, and avoiding lactose, found in dairy produce, and fructose, in many fruits and vegetables, may show some improvement. “There may also be a role for prescribed medication and even certain probiotics.”
If you have bleeding from your bottom or are losing a lot of weight, it’s important to contact your GP straight away as these symptoms can signal a more serious problem.
What is it?
Psoriasis is a chronic inflammatory condition which can flare up because of smoking, alcohol and stress. People with psoriasis may feel self-conscious about their appearance and this can have an impact on their mental health.
Red patches covered in silvery scales. These usually appear on the elbows, knees, trunk and scalp and can sometimes be itchy. The patches are typical of the most common form of the condition, plaque psoriasis.
Smooth patches of red skin. These appear in the folds of skin in areas prone to sweating, such as under the breasts and in the groin. This is referred to as inverse psoriasis.
Nail symptoms. These include thickening, ridges or pits, and discolouration.
Joint pain and swelling. Psoriatic arthritis most often affects the hands, feet and knees. This can occur without the skin problems and may be the only symptom.
Psoriasis can be mild with just a few patches that can be managed with self-help measures, such as moisturising, not scratching and avoiding your known triggers. But severe psoriasis may require treatment with medicines that target the immune system. “It’s important to get a proper diagnosis,” says Benenden Hospital GP and dermatologist Dr Mahendra Kondagari. Speak to your GP, or call our GP 24/7 and Mental Health Helplines for advice and support.
“Psoriasis is an inflammatory condition and associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, so patients should have regular blood pressure and cholesterol checks,” says Dr Kondagari.
What is it?
A type of headache disorder often accompanied by problems with vision and nausea. The World Health Organization ranks migraine as the sixth most disabling health condition worldwide. Triggers can include stress, lack of sleep, alcohol and certain foods.
Severe headache. It’s usually intense and throbbing, and focused on one side of the head, although in some people the pain affects both sides and can spread to the face and neck. Moving around often makes it worse.
Aura, or neurological symptoms. Around a third of migraine sufferers experience warning signs just before an attack. These include visual disturbances, such as zigzag lines, flashes of light or blind spots. Some people also have speech problems, or tingling, numbness or weakness in the limbs or face.
Severe migraines can also cause you to feel sick or vomit. This may be the only symptom in children.
Sensitivity to light and sound.
Some people experience symptoms such as lack of energy, frequent yawning, low mood and food cravings for up to two days before a migraine starts. It’s also common to feel tiredness and brain fog for a couple of days following an attack.
Taking over-the-counter painkillers or lying down in a darkened room ease symptoms for many people. “If you are taking lots of painkillers and experiencing many days when you can’t function, contact your doctor,” advises Dr Gerry Saldanha, consultant neurologist at Benenden Hospital. Botox injections can prevent attacks in chronic migraine sufferers. This is available as a self-pay treatment at Benenden Hospital.
Migraine symptoms can be similar to those of a stroke or meningitis. If you have new symptoms, such as a sudden agonising headache, paralysis or weakness in your arms or face, slurred speech, or a headache with fever, stiff neck or a rash, get medical attention as soon as possible.
5. Heart attack
What is it?
A medical emergency, which is caused by a blockage in a blood vessel supplying blood to the heart. A heart attack is an emergency so it’s important to act quickly.
Pain, or a feeling of pressure or squeezing in the centre of your chest. The pain can often radiate to the arms, neck, jaw or back, and sometimes to the upper right section of the abdomen.
Trouble breathing. “In about 25% of people, breathlessness is the only symptom. This is especially the case if you have diabetes,” says Dr Konrad Grosser, consultant cardiologist at Benenden Hospital.
Coughing or wheezing. This is caused by a build-up of fluid in the lungs.
Nausea, sweating, turning pale, or feeling faint can also signal a heart attack.
A feeling of intense anxiety. This can feel like a panic attack.
You should call 999 straight away. While waiting, it may help to take an aspirin, preferably 300mg, as this thins the blood, but avoid aspirin if you’re allergic to it. “If in doubt, call for help as it’s better to be safe than sorry,” says Dr Grosser. “Heart attack treatment loses effectiveness the longer it’s delayed, and after eight hours very little can be done to prevent damage to the heart.”
A heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest, where the heart stops and the patient stops breathing. Starting CPR immediately can double their chances of survival. You can learn how to perform this life-saving procedure on the Resuscitation Council UK website, resus.org.uk.
What is it?
Depression is a low mood that last for weeks or months and affects your daily life, it affects one in five people and is often characterised by a mix of mental and physical symptoms.
Low mood. Frequent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety or guilt, and you may not enjoy activities or socialising as much as usual.
Tiredness and brain fog. It’s also common to lack motivation and find it difficult to make decisions.
Changes in appetite. Some people lose interest in food, while others find their appetite increases.
Sleep problems. You may find it hard to get to sleep or wake up very early in the morning and can’t nod off again.
Mild depression often responds to self-help measures. Talk to family and friends about how you’re feeling, get more exercise and eat healthily. If you’ve been feeling down for more than two weeks, contact your GP. You can also refer yourself to your local NHS talking therapies service, known as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) (England only). Benenden Health members can call our 24/7 Mental Health Helpline for advice and support.
If you have suicidal thoughts, contact your GP immediately, or call the Samaritans on 116 123.
7. Liver disease
What is it?
A condition caused by excessive alcohol consumption, hepatitis or obesity. Your liver plays an important role in digesting food and getting rid of toxins from your body. The main causes of liver problems are excessive alcohol use, hepatitis viruses and obesity, which can lead to fatty liver disease. “It’s a very resilient organ and can soak up a huge amount of punishment so, by the time symptoms appear, the liver will likely have some serious damage,” warns Dr George Bird, consultant hepatologist at Benenden Hospital.
This gives the skin and whites of the eyes a yellow tinge. It results from a build-up of bilirubin, a by-product of liver function.
Abdominal pain, nausea or loss of appetite.
Leaking of fluids from your liver can cause a swollen stomach. And fluid retention can also cause swelling in your legs and ankles.
Itchy skin, dark urine and pale coloured poo.
If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to see your GP. But with liver disease, prevention is better than cure, says Dr Bird. You can avoid alcohol-induced damage by keeping to the weekly limits of 14 units for both men and women – spread out over the week with a few alcohol-free days. Dr Bird adds: “And avoid fatty liver disease by maintaining a healthy weight.”
Get immediate medical attention if you have a fever, are short of breath, vomiting blood or have dark, tarry poo, especially if you’ve already been diagnosed with liver problems.
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Medically reviewed by Llinos Connolly in September 2023. Next review date: September 2024.