It’s easy to be your own doctor. That means writing off a nagging headache as the result of a hellish few days at work, or blaming your takeout tendencies for a nasty case of heartburn. But sometimes, brushing off pain means ignoring a more serious health problem. After all, aches and pains are your body’s way of telling you that something’s off.
So, how do you know the difference between an ache that you can alleviate at home versus one that requires medical attention? Ultimately, your doctor should make the call based on your individual situation, but there are clues you can use to get an idea of what’s going on in your body. We talked to two experts, Alan Reznik, M.D., and Jeffrey Benabio, M.D., about red flags that require more than a trip to your bathroom’s medicine cabinet.
1. Chest pain
What it could mean: “If you sense a sharp pain in your chest, you may be having a heart attack, but also less obvious pain that may accompany this is pain in your arm, abdomen, neck, and jaw,” Benabio says. “When you have pain in your chest, you shouldn’t try to work through it. If you have chest pain, particularly after strenuous activity, or pain that’s accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea, and weakness, then you should call 911 or go to an emergency room immediately.”
2. Abdomen and back pain together
What it could mean: “Excruciating pain in the abdomen and back that usually comes in waves can signal a kidney stone,” says Benabio. “If you have other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, fever, or blood in your urine, then it’s time to see your doctor.”
3. Testicular pain
What it could mean: “This type of pain can be a sign of numerous conditions ranging from testicular cancer to a hernia,” says Benabio. “It should not be ignored. If you’re experiencing pain, particularly if you have other symptoms, such as swelling or redness of the testicles or have nausea and a fever, then seek medical attention immediately.”
4. Lower abdominal pain
What it could mean: “If you have a sharp, shooting pain on the right side of your abdomen accompanied by a fever and nausea, you could have appendicitis, a serious condition that needs to be surgically treated,” says Benabio. “Seek medical help immediately.”
5. Painful urination
What it could mean: Pain and burning when urinating can be signs of an STI, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea. If painful urination is accompanied by discharge, swollen testicles, or pain during intercourse, then see your doctor,” says Benabio.
6. Headache after a hit to the head
What it could mean: “Any significant headache after a fall or a hit in a sport needs evaluation at the sidelines. If there are any doubts, you should be removed from play,” says Reznik. Loss of consciousness, even for a few seconds, changes in mental status, inability to answer simple questions, or amnesia are signs of a risk for significant injury on return to a game.”
7. Knee pain
What it could mean: “If you have pain in your knee that causes swelling or significant bruising, this needs to be attended to,” says Reznik. “Bleeding around the knee is the major cause of rapid swelling and can mean a significant ligament tear or a fracture in the joint. If this is associated with an inability to move the knee or bear weight, an examination (preferably by an orthopedic surgeon) and an X-ray are best.”
8. Back-of-leg pain
What it could mean: “This is known as an Achilles tendon rupture,” says Reznik. “Swelling and inability to push off or toe-walk are big tip-offs. Often a tennis player will go to the net and stop short, then feel like someone kicked them in the back of the ankle. Or a basketball player will swear someone stepped on the back of their leg.
9. Forearm or lower-leg pain
What it could mean: A condition called compartment syndrome is the most deceptive injury of them all, says Reznik. “It’s usually associated with an injury to the forearm or lower leg (it’s very rare in the thigh) and it’s most common finding is crescendo pain, or pain that seems out of proportion to the injury and continues to increase with time.” When an injury occurs, blood flows into the area and swelling causes increasing pressure. Blood gets trapped in the “compartment” and circulation is eventually cut off by the high pressure. The muscle will lose its blood supply and can be lost permanently if the compartment is not surgically released in time.