10 Questions That Could Save Your Life | Reader's Digest

10 Questions That Could Save Your Life

What you need to ask the doctor when every moment counts.

By Pamela F. Gallin | MD from Reader's Digest | February 2007

Print: 10 Questions That Could Save Your Life

Bring this list of key questions to your next doctor’s appointment. Also, read the companion article, Questions You Must Ask Your Doctor.

Ten minutes: That’s often all the time you have with your doctor. Whether you’re seeing an internist, pediatrician or specialist, during that brief period the physician needs to listen to your complaints, make an assessment and clearly explain a recommended treatment.

To make the most of your time, even in the ER, you have to be prepared. By asking the right questions, you can direct the doctor’s decision making. Your MD is morally obligated to address your concerns honestly and directly. That might mean running an extra test, taking a second look or even getting another, more senior opinion on your symptoms or treatment.

In my career as a surgeon, I have found there are key, little-known questions about specific symptoms and life situations that could make a difference in the outcome of your care–and potentially save your life. Here, ten common conditions and the questions you need to ask.

Back Pain and Joint Pain
Back and joint pain are often thought of as an inevitable result of injury or getting older. But pain is usually your body’s way of telling you that something is very wrong. Don’t ignore it. There are life-threatening diseases that mimic these aches, and it’s important to catch them as early as possible. If you’re experiencing constant pain in your back or joints, ask your doctor:

“Besides arthritis or injury, what could be causing my back pain or joint pain?”

Here are some possibilities.

Prostate cancer and other abdominal problems. Prostate and pancreatic cancers and kidney stones can create back pain, often with a sharp, knifelike sensation in the middle or lower back. These diagnoses may be missed because most people don’t associate back pain with cancers or stones, so they may not even mention it. There are specific diagnostic tests for these diseases, including PSA (prostate specific antigen) tests and CT scans. Ask your doctor to be sure you get the right tests and, if necessary, a referral to a specialist.

Osteoporosis. Thinning and weakening of the bones is often age-related, but it’s now happening to younger people too. It can lead to small fractures in the spine and other areas, causing pain. Bone density screening is a painless, noninvasive test that’s often recommended for postmenopausal women or those with a family history. Standard treatment includes an increase of calcium and vitamin D in your diet, as well as medications like Fosamax, Actonel and Boniva.

Lyme disease. It often presents as joint pain with or without the famous “bull’s-eye” rash. Up to 25 percent of Lyme victims never see a rash and consequently don’t connect their joint pain with the disease. Lyme and its associated conditions are usually transferred by deer ticks. If caught early, Lyme disease can usually be easily treated with antibiotics. If it’s caught late, the treatment can be complex and the effects devastating.

Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE). This chronic autoimmune disease typically appears as a dark “butterfly” rash on the face, accompanied by severe joint pain. It is diagnosed with blood tests and a careful evaluation of symptoms and history. Treatment includes anti-inflammatory medicines.

Swollen joints. This can be a sign of a joint infection. Often, a sample of the joint fluid is taken for testing. If an infection such as staph is present, antibiotics are prescribed. Remember, infections can be lethal if not treated quickly, so don’t take a wait-and-see approach with swollen, aching joints.

Bone cancer. Pain can be caused by bone cancers as well as other cancers that spread to the bones. Common targets are the spine and rib cage. People who have had cancer anywhere in the body may be at risk for bone cancer.

Karen (not her real name), 37, called her brother to tell him about her terrible headache. She’d suffered bad ones before, and that night she went to bed in severe pain. Her brother called to check on her in the morning but couldn’t reach her. He tried her husband at work. A neighbor was sent over and, tragically, found Karen dead on the floor. She had died from a lethal brain aneurysm.

Aneurysms can be successfully treated if they’re caught in time. If you’re experiencing horrible, recurrent headaches or even one episode of the single most painful headache you’ve ever had, see a doctor and ask:

“This is the worst headache of my life — could it possibly be an aneurysm?”

There are many different types of headaches: cluster, sinus, migraine. An aneurysm isn’t a type of headache; it’s an abnormal widening or bulging of a blood vessel. Aneurysms cause severe, debilitating headaches when the blood vessel ruptures and blood enters the brain.

Aneurysms can occur as a birth defect or may develop later in life. It’s estimated that five percent of the population have some type of aneurysm in the brain; these could rupture at any time. If you have a severe headache accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or seizures or any other neurological symptoms, go to the ER or call 911 immediately.