Your Body's Silent Signs Revealed
Your body is talking to you all the time. That ache in your leg? It's your knee saying, maybe wear a brace. That weird acid reflux? It's your belly saying, no meatballs before bed. But sometimes your body talks to you so quietly, you can't hear it.
Sometimes it sends you silent signs.
Serious health problems don't always announce themselves with the most familiar, well-publicized symptoms. Instead, they can show up with the equivalent of a whisper—subtle signals in your body that are easily overlooked, or attributed to other, more minor conditions. These are the most common "silent" signs of major health issues. Here's what to look for, and what to do about them.
Could be a sign of: Cancer
Do you have uncomfortable bloating, that gassy swelling in your belly after eating? It could be a gastrointestinal issue. But in women, bloating can also be a sign of ovarian cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. It's one of the hardest cancers to detect early because there's no reliable routine screening test and symptoms can be vague. Bloating is one of them. Feeling full after eating more quickly than you used to is another.
Recommendation: Abdominal bloating can have many different causes. Several of them aren't serious—gas, constipation, IBS. But if you're consistently feeling bloated, discuss it with your doctor. Have an annual pelvic exam and discuss any digestive issues with your doctor.
Could be a sign of: A "silent" heart attack
Burning in your chest or throat is usually a sign of acid reflux. But according to Harvard Medical School, it can also be a symptom of a "silent" heart attack, also known as a silent myocardial infarction (SMI). These milder heart attacks have less intense symptoms. Instead of a stabbing pain in the chest or arm, an SMI might present itself with fatigue, physical discomfort, cold sweating, or mild discomfort in the center of the chest. "People can even feel completely normal during an SMI and afterward, too, which further adds to the chance of missing the warning signs," says Jorge Plutzky, MD, director of the vascular disease prevention program at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Silent heart attacks account for 45 percent of all heart attacks and affect men more than women. However, women are more likely to have nontraditional symptoms of a major heart attack, including nausea, indigestion, stomach pain or chest pressure that spreads to the throat. "Heartburn, shoulder pain, neck pain or jaw pain can easily be misread and easily overlooked, particularly in women," says Adam Splaver, MD, a cardiologist in South Florida. If you're not sure what's going on, get checked out.
Recommendation: Reduce your risk of heart disease by maintaining a healthy weight and blood pressure, eating a diet low in saturated fat, getting exercise and limiting alcohol. Get an annual physical with an EKG (electrocardiogram), which can detect heart damage.
Clumsy Hands or Unsteadiness
Could be a sign of: Cervical spondylotic myelopathy
It sounds scary, but cervical spondylotic myelopathy is a treatable condition whose symptoms are frequently ignored or mistaken for much more serious illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's Disease and ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), says Anthony Kouri, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Toledo Medical Center. Typically caused by worsening arthritis in the neck, it affects up to 18 percent of the population. Symptoms include neck pain and stiffness, weakness in the arms, numbness and tingling, difficulty buttoning shirts or holding a utensil, unsteadiness or imbalance and falls.
"People may notice they're bumping into things more frequently or increasingly dropping objects," says Kouri. "This gradually worsens and leads to neurologic decline and a severely affected quality of life. If left untreated, it can lead to quadriplegia and wheelchair dependence." Surgery can halt the progression of symptoms, but can't always reverse them, so treatment within six months of symptom onset is ideal.
Recommendation: CSM is often missed by doctors because the symptoms are general and often attributed to normal aging at first. If you're experiencing those physical signs, discuss them with your doctor.
Shortness of Breath
Could be a sign of: Heart failure
"Signs of congestive heart failure can often mimic asthma," says Splaver. "Symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing and cough are all telltale signs of asthma but can also be a sign you're retaining fluid and your heart is failing."
Recommendation: If you're having chronic shortness of breath, see your doctor and describe your symptoms fully.
Could be a sign of: Cancer
"Oftentimes patients experience night sweats and blame menopause or andropause," says Liem Quang Le, a doctor of acupuncture and Oriental medicine at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. "However, night sweats can be a symptom of lymphoma or leukemia."
Recommendation: If you're experiencing night sweats, "It's recommended that the patient see their primary care provider to order a complete blood count, which will include a white blood cell (WBC) count," says Le. "A very high WBC might be suggestive of lymphoma or leukemia, which will require further investigation by an oncologist."
Could be a sign of: Heart disease
If your spouse threatening to establish separate bedrooms doesn't motivate you to do something about your snoring, this might. Snoring could be a sign you have sleep apnea, a condition that's linked to a variety of serious illnesses, including cardiovascular disease.
During sleep apnea, you stop breathing—for up to a minute—until the brain wakes you up to start breathing again. According to Harvard Medical School, sleep apnea is present in 47 to 83 percent of people with heart disease, and untreated sleep apnea could raise your risk of dying of heart problems by up to five times. Why? Over time, it "exposes the heart and circulation to harmful stimuli that may cause or contribute to the progression of most cardiovascular diseases," says Dr. Atul Malhotra, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and sleep specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Recommendation: If you've been told you snore, talk to your doctor about it.
Fresh blood in stool
Could be a sign of: Cancer
It's often said that dark, tarry stools or dark blood associated with a bowel movement could be signs of colon cancer, but bright-red blood in the bowl also warrants investigation by a doctor. "Oftentimes patients that find fresh blood in their stools will use their history of hemorrhoids as an excuse to disregard the blood," says Le. "However, fresh blood in stools could be due to colorectal cancer."
Recommendation: "A patient experiencing fresh blood in the stools should see a gastroenterologist to confirm whether the bleeding is due to hemorrhoids, inflammatory bowel disease, or cancer," adds Le.
Could be a sign of: Heart problems
"Everyone gets tired," says Joshua S. Yamamoto, MD, a Washington, D.C. based physician and author of You Can Prevent A Stroke. "But fatigue is the most common early sign of cardiovascular disease." The reason? The heart pumps blood to every organ in the body; in the absence of good blood flow — particularly to the brain and muscles — the body feels fatigued. "As we get older, we may be quick to assume that age alone is an excuse for getting tired so easily," adds Yamamoto. "But it doesn't have to be that way. A lot can be done to address natural aging and change how we feel."
Recommendation: "We use the memory device D-HART," says Yamamoto. "D: have a doctor. Ask them, 'What is the health of my Heart and Arteries, and what are my heart's Rhythms?' Then ask, 'Is it Time to do something?' If you feel fatigued, you may have the ultimate, universal early sign of heart trouble. Go to your doctor and start asking questions."
Waking up hoarse
"This can be a sign of acid reflux," says registered dietitian Dina Merhbi. The condition—in which stomach acid backs up into the esophagus and may reach your throat and mouth—can be aggravated by lying flat at night. "If it goes untreated, it can increase your risk of cavities and cancer," adds Merhbi. The acid can wear down sensitive tooth enamel and inflame the sensitive tissue of the esophagus, leading to a precancerous condition called Barrett's esophagus and potentially esophageal cancer.
Recommendation: Avoid eating three hours before bed. Limit alcohol. If you're waking up hoarse or have other symptoms of acid reflux such as heartburn, talk to your doctor, who may recommend lifestyle changes or medication.
Unexpected weight gain
Could be a sign of: Thyroid problems
"Unexplained weight gain can be related to your thyroid being underactive," says Merhbi. It's a condition called hypothyroidism, in which the thyroid gland isn't producing enough of the hormone that stokes your metabolism. In addition to weight gain, you might have other nonspecific symptoms like fatigue or sensitivity to cold.
Recommendation: If you're experiencing symptoms associated with a thyroid disorder, ask your doctor for a blood test that will check your TSH hormone levels. Imbalances can be treated with medication.
Could be a sign of: Heart disease
Having difficulty getting or keeping an erection isn't a sign that your indescribable masculine mojo is on the wane. The problem could be all in your head—or about a foot lower. According to the Mayo Clinic, erectile dysfunction is often an early sign of heart disease. The arteries that carry blood to your penis might not be transporting enough for it to become engorged if your heart isn't pumping as it should.
Recommendation: Take steps to lower your risk of both ED and cardiovascular disease: Maintain a healthy weight, stop smoking, keep diabetes and high cholesterol under control if you have them, get regular exercise and eat a balanced diet low in saturated fat.
Unexplained weight loss
Could be a sign of: Cancer
If you think dropping weight without changing anything about your diet or exercise regimen sounds terrific, think again: An unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more can be a sign of cancer. It happens most often with cancers of the pancreas, stomach, esophagus or lung, the American Cancer Society says.
Recommendation: If you're dropping weight without effort, pick up the phone and schedule an appointment with your primary care physician.
Could be a sign of: Depression
If you find yourself increasingly tetchy with co-workers, family members or friends—or just randomly cursing the traffic or the line at Starbucks—it doesn't necessarily mean you're just turning into a charmingly cantankerous elder. Frequent irritability is a common sign of depression (although chronic sadness tends to hog most of the credit).
Recommendation: If you find that you're fussing and fuming more than usual, it might be time to assess your mental health. Are you in a low mood more often than usual? Finding less enjoyment in activities you once considered pleasurable? Those are also symptoms of depression. You don't have to live with it—talk to your doctor; many treatment options are available.
Could be a sign of: Stroke
Just as you can have a "silent" heart attack, you can have a silent stroke. This happens frequently enough—affecting 8 to 10 million people each year—that the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association issued new guidance about them in 2016. Silent strokes may not cause classic symptoms and might only show up as white spots on brain scans. But they should be treated to prevent a full-blown stroke. "It is important to go to your family physician if there are concerns about neurological symptoms like weakness or speech difficulty because silent strokes put people at risk not only for future symptomatic strokes but also for cognitive decline and dementia," said Eric E. Smith, MD, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Calgary.
Recommendation: See your physician if you have those symptoms, and reduce your risk of stroke by eating a Mediterranean diet—heavy in fruits and vegetables, lean protein and good fats—reducing sodium in your diet and not smoking.
Could be a sign of: Deep vein thrombosis
A swelling or throbbing in one of your legs could be a sign of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a serious and potentially fatal condition in which a blood clot forms in a vein, then breaks off and travels to the lung, blocking blood flow or oxygen, a condition called a pulmonary embolism.
Recommendation: If you experience swelling in your leg, tell your doctor about your risk factors for DVT, such as leg pain or swelling, recent long periods of sitting (including on plane travel), or a previous DVT diagnosis.
It's easy to tell ourselves fibs and make excuses about our health—but that can lead to major problems down the line. Read 21 Lies We Tell Ourselves About Our Health to learn about some of the most common lies doctors and health experts say we tell ourselves—and Eat This, Not That! Health's recommendations for how to stop fooling yourself out of your best health ever.