En español | If you're hurting, see a doctor. It's sound advice that may seem obvious, but older adults in particular sometimes write off pain as a function of aging and may wait too long to get medical attention, says Edwin Leap, M.D., an emergency physician in upstate South Carolina.
He's seen it happen. And the results can be devastating.
"Boomers, especially, are very stoic,” Leap says. “They're used to things hurting. So they put off chest pain for a day or two, and by time they come to hospital they've completed a heart attack. Or they fall off a ladder, get up and say they're fine. Then it turns out they have an intracranial hemorrhage — a life-threatening situation.”
Any new or unexplained pain should be checked out by a doctor, Leap says, even if it's not severe.
Of course, some types of pain are more likely to signal something serious. Doctors recommend heading straight to the ER if you're experiencing one of the particular types below:
- Pain with loss of function. If you hurt your leg but you can still walk on it, it may be just a sprain. “But if you can't move it and you're having pain, that should be investigated immediately,” Leap says. Loss of function can indicate a fracture, nerve injury, loss of blood flow or a serious infection.
- Eye pain that comes out of nowhere. It could be caused by a blocked blood vessel, internal bleeding or acute glaucoma, a serious eye condition caused by increased pressure inside the eye. Eye pain can also be the first symptom of shingles, a viral infection that causes a painful rash, says Diane Ryan, M.D., an internal medicine specialist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “If you have sudden onset of eye pain, that's an emergency,” she says.
- Chest pain, especially if triggered by exertion. An older adult experiencing any type of chest pain should be evaluated by a doctor right away, says Ryan, who notes that a heart attack doesn't always manifest as sudden, crushing pain: “Sometimes it's more like a dull pressure or a heaviness.” Other signs of a heart attack are dizziness, fatigue or shortness of breath while doing ordinary activities like going up the stairs or gardening.
- The worst headache of your life. An occasional headache is usually nothing to worry about. More concerning is one that feels more severe than usual, Leap says. A headache is also worrisome if it's accompanied by neck stiffness, weakness or vision change, or if you recently hit your head. And know that if you're on blood thinners, simply bumping your head on a door frame can cause dangerous bleeding in your skull.
- Severe abdominal pain. Pain in your abdomen that keeps getting worse — or that is associated with vomiting, swelling or a fever — can be a marker of acute appendicitis, a serious infection, or diverticulitis. “You know your body,” Leap says. “If you've had this pain on and off for years, that's one thing. But if it's new and it doesn't let up or it keeps getting worse, I want to see you.”
- Calf pain, especially after surgery. Increasing pain in your calf after a prolonged period of inactivity, even if it's not severe, can be a sign of deep vein thrombosis (DVT). This dangerous type of blood clot is especially common in patients recovering from knee or hip surgery, Ryan says. DVTs need to be treated right away because the clots can travel through your bloodstream and block the blood supply to your lungs, a life-threatening condition called pulmonary embolism.
- Pain from a minor wound. Say you're working in the yard and something sticks you in hand. Or you cut yourself doing a home repair. If the pain from a wound (especially one that is red and swollen) keeps getting worse over a few days, that can be a sign of a serious infection that can turn deadly if not treated. “Organic material causes infections that spread wildly,” Leap explains. “I've seen a splinter that got up under a fingernail and the patient said, ‘It's fine. I'll deal with it later.’ A few days later, they've got red streaks up their arm and a raging infection.”