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The Break Room: Shhh … Is Your Body Trying to Tell You Something?

Nov. 14, 2012
Medical professionals from New York-Presbyterian Hospital explain how to decode your body's signals.

To say I'm a hypochondriac would be too strong. But I'll be honest and admit that new ailments, from a headache to a cut that looks a little pink around the edges, too often lead me down the path of, "What the heck is wrong with me, and am I facing something serious??"

No one likes a Debbie Downer who runs to WebMD immediately after incurring a paper cut to see how long she has to live. But let's face it: Our bodies do send us important signals, and ignoring those signs potentially could lead to situations of life-or-death severity.

The doctors and nurses at New York-Presbyterian Hospital – and of the hit ABC summer series NY MED, which features "cutting-edge medical cases are encountered in New York's Columbia and Weill Cornell Hospitals" – offer some tips to help you tune in to your body's signals. Educate yourself on the following "body language" clues that may arise if you are experiencing or about to experience the following serious health issues:

Aneurysms: A sudden, severe headache could be a warning signal here. If you experience the sudden onset of the worst headache of your life, this could signal a possible brain hemorrhage or ruptured aneurysm.

Breast cancer: Any sudden change in the appearance of the breast or nipple could be a sign of possible cancer. Check with your doctor if you see any dimpling of the skin or retraction of the nipple. The best way to catch these changes is by doing monthly self breast exams.

Colon cancer: The early warning signs of colon cancer may include changes in bowel habits, blood in your stool, persistent abdominal discomfort, weakness or unexplained weight loss. The best way to prevent colon cancer is to get colonoscopies beginning at age 50 to remove benign polyps that may become cancerous, over time, if left in place.

Heart attack/heart failure: Severe pain or extremely uncomfortable pressure in your chest, back, neck, left arm or jaw while at rest may be signs of a heart attack. Furthermore, swollen legs, erectile dysfunction and sleep difficulties are indicators of poor circulation and may spell heart failure.

Heart attacks in women: If you feel pressure in your chest or shortness of breath when you are exerting yourself, see a doctor, but also consider nausea and excessive sweating as signs that there may be a problem with your heart. Women often ignore the warning signs of a heart attack, even though heart attacks are more often fatal in women than in men.

Liver cirrhosis: Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, is a silent disease that often does not have any obvious symptoms at first. Once the condition has progressed to an advanced stage, you may experience yellowing of the eyes, vomiting blood, tar-colored stool, abdominal bloating and feeling confused or disoriented.

Stroke: Mini-strokes are characterized by numbness or shaking of one part of your body; loss of your ability to speak; or an alteration in consciousness.

If you – or a family member or coworker – experience a medical emergency such as a heart attack, stroke or ruptured aneurysm, head to the emergency room immediately.  And in order to be as prepared as possible, NY Med emergency medicine team Dr. Alexis Halpern and Dr. Debbie Yi offer the following safety suggestions: Keep a medication list in your wallet; bring your prescription and non-prescription medication bottles with you, even those of herbal medications; keep the names and phone numbers of your doctors with you; if you've had abnormal ECGs (electrocardiogram), keep a copy in your wallet at all times; and always write down your diagnosis and what tests were done.

In the spirit of ensuring that your work force is as healthy, productive and prepared as possible, share these tips with them and encourage them to be attuned to their own health signals. Who knows – one day, this information could save a life.

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