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Symptoms which could be harmless. Just don’t ask Dr Google

By Pauline Muindi | January 19th 2020

You have been having heart palpitations, so you do the reasonable thing – you Google what this could mean. After reading a few of the search results, you are convinced that you’re dying from heart disease. Now you have only a few months (or even weeks) to live!

But before you let Dr Google convince you that forgetfulness mean you have dementia or a brain tumour, read these assuring explanations for some of the most alarming symptoms:

1. Chest Pain

Understandably, when you have chest pain, the first thing that comes to mind is “am I having a heart attack?”

But not every chest pain is an indicator of heart disease. According to a study published in the European Society of Cardiology there’s no clear association between unexplained chest pain and future risk of heart attack and death. The study analysed 54 past studies that tracked outcomes in patients with chest pain and no heart disease. All together, the study included 35,039 patients who were followed for a median of five years. The patients were 56 years on average and had experienced chest pain but no coronary artery disease.

However, the researchers noted that poorer outcomes were associated with existing risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. In addition, patients with plaque build-up in their arteries had significantly higher risk of heart attack and death than those with clear arteries.

How can you tell that your chest pain means you’re having a heart attack?

When you experience unexplained pain or pressure on your chest, or in your arms, back, jaw, neck or upper stomach – along with shortness of breath, a cold sweat, nausea, fatigue or light-headedness.

However, you might not have to call for immediate help if:

·         You experience momentary chest pain or discomfort characterised as a lightning bolt or electrical shock. This is more likely to indicate that you have a musculoskeletal injury or inflammation, nerve pain, or even a pulled muscle. For instance, you could be suffering from costochondritis which is caused by inflammation of the cartilage between breastbone and ribs. This often leads to stabbing, aching pain that can be mistaken for a heart attack.

·         You have pinpoint chest discomfort that seems to worsen when you change position. This usually means that the problem is your lungs, not heart.

·         You have chest pain or discomfort that gets better when you start moving. This often means that there was another explanation, such as acid reflux.

To be safe, you should still see a doctor for a proper diagnosis when you experience chest pain.

2. Heart Palpitations

Just like chest pain, having heart palpitations doesn’t necessarily mean you are having a heart attack. According to Mayo Clinic, although heart palpitations are alarming, they often turn out to be harmless. Rarely do heart palpitations turn out to be an indicator of a more serious heart condition that requires treatment.

People tend to experience palpitations differently - some describe them as a fluttering sensation in their chest, the heart skipping beats, the heart beating too fast, or even a noticeable pounding in the chest or neck. For many people, heart palpitations happen once in a blue moon, while some people can have dozens of these heart flutters in a single day.

Basically, you can think of heart palpitations as hiccups in your heart. They happen when the hearts upper cavities (atria) or the main chambers (ventricles) contracts too soon -- which temporarily disrupts your heart’s rhythm.

Heart palpitations can be triggered by exercise, stress or anxiety, sleep deprivation, dehydration, large amounts of caffeine or alcohol, and even certain medication, diet pills or illicit drugs.

When should you get heart palpitations checked out?

 “If you have palpitations accompanied by dizziness, weakness, or chest pain, you should get them checked out” advises Dr Peter Zimetbaum, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Harvard Medical School. Additionally, you should consult a doctor when your palpitations are persistent and occur more than a minute at a time, or you regularly experience a rapid heartbeat.

3. Shaky Hands

When you realise that you have been having shaky hands for some time, don’t rush to diagnose yourself with Parkinson’s Disease. This could be a harmless symptom that you don’t have to worry about.

You could have essential tremors – which are often harmless and don’t have an identifiable cause. In most cases, essential tremors happen when a person is using their hands and not when at rest. This is unlike Parkinson’s tremors which are noticeable when the hands are at rest but not when the hands are engaged. Parkinson’s tremors often start on one side of the body and are paired with stiffness, slow movement and loss of coordination

According to Dr Chizoba Umeh, a neurologist specialising in movement disorders at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, essential tremors are common in middle or older age. “They’re not life-threatening, although people with severe tremors may have a hard time feeding themselves, dressing or driving.”

If you’re worried about your tremors, consult a physician. They might direct you to a neurologist to help distinguish if you have essential tremors or Parkinson’s disease.

4. Forgetfulness

Recently, you have realised that you often forget the right word during conversation. In addition, you never seem to remember where you placed your car keys. Could you be experiencing early signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s?

Not necessarily. It’s totally normal to have lapses in memory, especially as you get older. Here are some fairly common explanations for memory problems:

·         Lack of sleep: Have you been pulling all-nighters recently? Not getting enough sleep is one of the most common causes of forgetfulness. Sleep deprivation can also lead to mood changes and anxiety, which further aggravates forgetfulness.

·         Stress and anxiety: Most cases of forgetfulness in younger people are linked to stress and anxiety, which make it harder to concentrate and lock in new information, or retrieve old memories.

·         Depression: One of the common symptoms of depression is forgetfulness.

·         Medications: Some medications- such as tranquilizers, antidepressants or blood pressure medication- can make you more forgetful. Talk to your doctor if you suspect that the medication you’re taking is affecting your memory.

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