Act Fast! 7 Health Problems That Can’t Wait

These seemingly minor woes can take over your life. Don't let them.

By Stephen Fried from Reader's Digest | November 2010

Wherever Steve Hart looks, the 49-year-old technology consultant sees a reminder of the risk he took that damaged his eyesight. Hart’s once-perfect vision is marred by a small spot that will forever be out of focus, like viewing a 3-D image without the glasses—a result of the torn retina he ignored for three days. If he had called his doctor the Saturday morning that he started seeing little spots called floaters, the tear might have been repaired with a simple laser treatment; he could have gone back to work on Monday. Instead he waited until Wednesday to consult his physician, after he suddenly lost most of the sight in his left eye. By then, he needed surgery that would keep him out of work for four weeks, and his vision has never been the same.

“If you have changes in your eyesight, do not hesitate,” Hart says. “Wherever you are, call your doctor. It will save you an unbelievable amount of grief.”

But what Hart did—or didn’t do—is alarmingly common. Many of us are taught from an early age that the grown-up response to pain, weakness, or emotional turmoil is to ignore it, to tough it out. And because of the weak economy, more of us are toughing it out than ever before. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 45 percent of Americans are putting off medical care because of financial pressures. We tell ourselves this approach has no major consequences—that it may be inconvenient and perhaps painful but that it’s not really dangerous. Yet research is making it increasingly clear that in many cases, toughing out symptoms can cause irreversible harm.

That’s true for depression and migraines and even for the common sprained ankle. According to Jay Hertel, PhD, a leading expert on joint physiology, so many people ignore ankle sprains or discontinue treatment before the injury is healed that orthopedists cringe at the advice given to kids everywhere: “Walk it off.” Recent studies show that when you sprain your ankle, some of the sensory receptors in your ligaments (which help the brain know where your leg and foot are positioned) can be permanently damaged by improper care. As a result, the ankle loses a bit of its ability to communicate with your brain about how to avoid further trauma, and you become vulnerable to reinjury.

Protect yourself from annoying symptoms, lifelong pain, or worse. Here are seven ailments you should never ignore—and how to treat them.

1. The Worst Headache of Your Life

We all have headaches, but in some cases, a pain in the head can be a sign of a life-threatening medical emergency, like a ruptured aneurysm or a stroke.

What to do: According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, if you experience a “sudden severe headache like a clap of thunder,” especially if it gets worse despite resting and taking standard over-the-counter pain medicine, it might mean that an aneurysm—a weakness in the wall of a blood vessel—has ruptured, causing bleeding into the brain. That’s as bad as it sounds and requires immediate medical attention. A headache that’s accompanied by slurred speech or weakness on one side of your body is a classic sign of a stroke, most often caused by a blockage in the brain’s blood supply. You have a “golden window” of just a few hours in which treatment is most effective—get to an emergency room or call 911. If a worsening headache follows even a minor fall or blow to the head, it can be a tip-off to potentially lethal brain swelling. Call your doctor regardless of the time of day (remember that actress Natasha Richardson did not, and it cost her her life).

2. Migraines

No one suggests that these painful and debilitating headaches require an emergency response. But studies have produced some troubling findings lately for women who regularly experience migraines with auras— perceptual distortions, usually visual, such as flashing or zigzag lights or blurred vision. These headaches used to be thought of as episodic, “with no trace they’d occurred,” says Lenore Launer, PhD, chief of neuroepidemiology at the U.S. National Institute on Aging (NIA). But not anymore. Launer’s studies at NIA found that women who get migraines with auras show small brain lesions—tiny areas in the cerebellum where tissue has died—at a rate nearly double that of women who aren’t saddled with migraines. Whether these brain changes are caused by migraines with auras or the changes cause migraines (or some combination of the two) is still being studied. But they are one more reason to get preventive treatment.

What to do: Anyone with severe or frequent headaches should see a doctor who provides the most up-to-date treatments, including help identifying and managing headache triggers along with medications that can abort attacks and control pain. There’s no evidence that these approaches will prevent or reduce brain lesions, but experts believe they’ll lower the odds of your migraines becoming chronic. (Some people suffer migraines 15 or more days each month, an agonizing way to live.)

3. Depression

Although many people view depression as minor, experts know it as a crippling disorder that should be treated promptly. Studies show that the longer you delay getting help, the harder it can be to get symptoms under control. And recent imaging studies have even led some researchers to suggest that the part of the brain called the hippocampus may shrink in people with multiple episodes of depression.

What to do: If you experience a persistent sad or anxious mood, feelings of hopelessness, lack of interest in work or hobbies, or recurring thoughts of dying or suicide, seek help from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional, says Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. Or at least make sure you talk frankly about your experiences with your primary care doctor, who should know when to refer you to a specialist. Decisions about how long to continue therapy, medication, or both are ones you should make with a health-care professional—not on your own. Too many people simply stop taking medications, which can result in a very rocky landing or even a relapse.

4. Ankle Sprains

When you sprain your ankle, you stretch one or more of the three main ligaments that hold the joint together. If you don’t treat the sprain properly, the fibers in these ligaments can heal in an inappropriately shortened or lengthened position, leaving you prone to further injury. Indeed, up to 30 percent of people who sprain their ankles develop “chronic ankle instability,” leading to a cycle of repeated injury.

What to do: If you turn your ankle and can’t walk on it at all—or even put weight on it—go to the emergency room to rule out severe ligament damage and broken bones. If you can walk without excruciating pain, wrap your ankle with a compression bandage to reduce swelling, and get off your feet.

Keep your ankle elevated as much as possible for 48 hours, applying ice for 20 minutes every two hours.

Even after the pain and swelling are gone, don’t consider yourself fully healed, says surgeon John Kennedy, MD, of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York; to make sure you don’t reinjure your ankle, you need to strengthen it. Kennedy recommends a regimen of balance-improving exercises, including this one: Stand flat on one foot, with the opposite leg bent at the knee, then switch legs and repeat. Begin by brushing your teeth while standing flamingo-style for 30 seconds; work up to 3 minutes per leg.