Three Symptoms You Should Never Ignore

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE) are, without doubt, the most painful injuries I have ever experienced in my life. As a prior athlete, I had become accustomed to pain to some extent. After all, training for a half marathons is not meant to be pain-free. My legs hurt, my feet hurt, my shoulders hurt and even my lungs hurt at different points throughout my training. Growing accustomed to ongoing knee pain actually contributed to a delay in my seeking medical treatment for my DVT because I thought it was a result of a recurring overuse injury. I finally went to the Emergency Room (and only after instruction from my family physician) when I was struggling to breathe. Pain, as I have come to find out, is also a part of recovery from a DVT and PE. As we become more accustomed to pain during recovery, there are three symptoms you should never ignore when it comes to your health.

Learning to gauge what pain is critical and what is a normal part of recovery can be difficult and, above all else, it is important to remain in contact with your physician about your specific symptoms. Pain, for me, comes and goes now, two years out from my DVT and PE. Some days I feel great and other days it is still a struggle to get up, get dressed and walk up the stairs because of pain in my leg affected by DVT or pain in my side from the PE. While the pain has lessened over time, I did not know what pain was normal and what wasn’t in the beginning. Two months after I was admitted to the hospital with the PE, I was re-admitted with pain in my same side, this time as a result of pleurisy (or inflammation of the lining of the lung). I called my doctor and he indicated given my very recent history of PE, it was better to get it checked out than to wait. And, when in doubt and regardless of the perceived severity of your symptoms, get checked out, especially these three symptoms!

As time progressed, I learned to gauge pain, but once again found myself in the ER more recently with a severe headache that lasted over a day and caused blurry vision. That was abnormal for me, something new and a growing concern the longer it persisted. Again, my doctor advised that given my history of clotting and increased risk of stroke due to antiphospholipid syndrome, it was best to get it checked out. In this case, it was just a headache (presumably brought on by lack of sleep and stress and maybe a protruding wisdom tooth), but again, I did not know.

Now, after these experiences, I know there are three symptoms you should never ignore – regardless of your past medical history.

1) Difficulty Breathing/Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath has many different causes. For example, known and chronic heart disease can cause breathlessness if your heart is struggling to pump blood throughout your body.While you can have difficulty breathing with, for example, pneumonia or bronchitis, it can also be a symptom of something life-threatening such as a heart attack or a PE. You should seek immediate medical assistance especially if your symptoms appear suddenly, are long-lasting, are new or do not subside with regular rest.

2) Chest Pains

Causes of chest pain can vary from minor problems, such as indigestion or stress, to serious medical emergencies, such as a heart attack or PE. The specific cause of chest pain is often difficult to diagnose without medical attention. Chest pains that appear suddenly are of significant concern and can be symptoms of a PE, heart attack or even a stroke. Chest pains may present as numbness or tingling in the chest area, back or even the shoulder arm/area. You should seek immediate medical assistance if you experience chest pains that are sudden and unexplained.

3) Headache (sudden onset, long-lasting or especially one that causes changes in vision or speech)

Common types of headaches include tension headaches, migraines, sinus headaches, and headaches that begin in your neck. You can have a headache with a cold or flu or as a result of other illness. They can range from mild to severe in symptoms. Headaches that are particularly concerning are the ones that come on suddenly, last for an extended period of time or cause changes in vision and/or speech as these can be symptoms of a stroke or blood clot. You should seek immediate medical assistance if you experience a headache with any of these symptoms.

The bottom line is, you know your body best and as you are recovering and learning what pain is normal for you, it is important to keep in touch with your medical professional about any sudden or unexplained symptoms you experience. If you cannot get in contact with your doctor or are concerned, chest pains, shortness of breath and headaches are three symptoms you should never ignore when it comes to your health.

Share your story. Do you agree that these are three symptoms you should never ignore? How are you listening to your body?

There is hope for healing and you are not alone,

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In Defense of the ER

When I woke up with a sudden onset headache at 4:00 a.m., I didn’t think anything was wrong. In my head’s defense, I hadn’t been sleeping and had a few long days and nights. In my doctor’s defense, I didn’t know anything was wrong the last time something was seriously wrong so I knew he would send me to the Emergency Room when I called him around 4:00 that same afternoon and told him I had blurred vision too. In my eyes’ defense, I was staring at a computer screen all day. In my doctor’s defense (again) that sort of thing never caused blurred vision before. In my defense, I knew what the outcome would be and the ER is time-consuming, expensive and sometimes inconclusive or seemingly even a waste of time. My doctor, seemingly the only one concerned about me (between him and I) by dinnertime, requested I head (no pun intended) to the ER to get a CAT scan. I did, begrudgingly, and told myself the whole way there I would tell anyone else in my shoes to go.

Hospitals never bothered me [before] so I wasn’t expecting the sheer terror I experienced when the nurse wanted to insert an IV. When asked why she said, “Just in case we have to admit you,” which completely sent me into an unexpected fit of tears. She and her summoned colleague decided against the IV and proceeded to stare at me for several minutes while I wiped the snot off my face and all over my sleeves. I went to sit in the waiting room while they ordered blood work, which – in my head’s defense – made me feel better.

Just about two hours (I consider myself lucky) and who knows how many thousands of dollars later, I had the CAT scan and was waiting on the results. The ER doctor came in and told me what I already suspected, “I don’t see a clot and I don’t see a bleed. I don’t see anything identifiable at the moment, but I am concerned about the headache.” In exasperation, I threw my hands into the air and exclaimed, “I knew I was overreacting!”

The doctor stopped shuffling papers, put down my charts, folded his arms on his lap and leaned forward, looking directly into my eyes. I stared back. I could feel the tears welling up, and I tried to focus on how kind and reassuring his eyes looked to me. He breathed deeply and leaned back again.

“This, unfortunately, is your life being on warfarin,” he said, “You never know, you never can tell. You have things going on. You have things working against you and a history that does not put you in a comfortable place medically. It could have been a bleed. It could have been a clot. It could be something neurological. I would rather see you here on an ‘overreaction’ than the way you were before. Nothing about this will ever be an overreaction. You’re a remarkable young lady. You have to take care of yourself and this is one of the ways you have to do it now.”

I stared at him and blubbered on about my story – my PE and everything I had been through in the last year or so – a job loss, relationship struggles, pain and fear and a loss of self that has still impacted me in a way I don’t recognize today. I don’t think I was uttering a bit of sense, but that doctor listened with all the sincerity and compassion he could. When his pager shrieked and a trauma was called out overhead, I knew he had to go; and he left me on the condition I could go home if I promised to 1) come back if my head was not better or worse in 24 hours, 2) follow-up with my doctor and 3) ask for a referral to a neurologist to hopefully get to the root of the problem. Only four hours after I first arrived, I collected my stuff, swallowed two Tylenol tablets and was discharged per the above contract.

My headache did not grow worse and lessened over the next several hours (with rest and quiet), but I am grateful I went to the ER. I followed up with my hematologist the next morning who confirmed I could never be sure with my clotting history and whether I was willing to or not, he was not willing to take the chance that I might have another clot. I might not get so lucky to survive the next time.

I left that ER feeling completely validated for even calling my doctor in the first place. I left feeling like I did the right thing and, aside from what could be going on with my brain, I actually left feeling like there was nothing wrong with me.

Today, I am passing that message of validation on to you. I know it is hard to go to the ER when you think something could – or could not – be wrong. I know money, time, effort and perceived consequences are the first thing on each of our minds. I know because it just happened to me.

I am here to tell you that if you have anything that causes you concern enough to wonder if something else might be going on, you are right in seeking medical attention. Do not not let anyone tell you or treat you differently. If you are worried due to breathing issues, chest pains/sensations, difficulty speaking or swallowing, loss of balance, headaches, nausea, blurred vision or lack of mobility – that is all the more reason to go. You never know. We just never know.

We become accustomed to feeling like we are overreacting (because sometimes nothing is wrong), like we always have something wrong (because a lot of times it is), like we are always sick or a complainer (it’s easy to let others make us think this way) and given what we have all been through (which is not to be taken lightly), our bodies and minds deserve better than that thinking. You deserve better than that thinking. Please, I urge you and I always will, seek the medical attention you need if you are feeling like something is wrong. If you aren’t an advocate for your health, there just may not be anyone else who is either; and the chance we have been given is just too previous, in my opinion, to let slip away for a second time.

Be well.

Share your story. Have you ever gone to the ER and found nothing was wrong? Something was wrong? Do you feel like you are overreacting to the point of not going to the ER? What has (or has not) changed your mind? Do you go to the ER more since your clot?

There is hope for healing and you are not alone,

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