Most doctors worth their weight in medical degrees agree that by maintaining a balanced diet, leading an active lifestyle, and scheduling regular checkups, you’re on the right track when it comes to your health.
But the truth is, healthy living can only do so much—the next best option is knowing our bodies well and recognizing when something isn’t right. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done—because in those early stages, when intervention is typically most successful, the signs of serious health issues are also the most subtle.
Whether you’ve noticed changes to your mood, sleep patterns, weight, or even your handwriting, recognizing these near-silent symptoms in time can clue you in to potentially-serious sicknesses. In fact, doing so might even save your life.
1. Rib Pain
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three people will develop shingles in their lifetime, and an estimated one million cases of shingles are diagnosed in America each year. But despite its prevalence, one of its major symptoms is very often overlooked: rib pain.
“Often patients think they injured a rib or have a kidney infection because they have pain over the area, when in fact it is the early stages of shingles,” explains Dr. Kristine Arthur, MD, a board-certified internist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California
2. Changes in Your Personality
Of course you can expect some fluctuation in your mood from day to day, depending on what’s happening in your life, but if you or the people around you notice any abrupt personality changes that aren’t preceded by a major life change, it may be due to a medical cause.
According to the Merck Manual, a doctor can help you evaluate whether the culprit is a mental health issue, a side effect of medication, the byproduct of a neurological health problem, or the result of another body-wide health concern, such as low blood sugar, a thyroid problem, or even lupus.
3. Lower Right Side Stomach Pain
The most common explanation for abdominal pain is digestive problems, but if the pain is contained in the lower right side, you might be looking at something much more serious: appendicitis.
According to a 2015 study in The Journal of The Canadian Chiropractic Association, appendicitis can frequently fly under the radar due to the subtlety of the pain level some patients experience; one patient in the aforementioned study described his pain as a 2/10 before being rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy! If you notice this symptom, it’s time to call the doctor—even if the pain feels manageable at the moment.
4. Bleeding Between Periods
Mild bleeding between periods, also known as spotting, is considered a normal (if somewhat uncommon) part of ovulation, and can be accounted for with fluctuations in estrogen levels. But according to Ross, heavier bleeding between menstruation can also be a sign of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a condition that affects five to 10 percent of women and can cause infertility and excruciating pain.
“Your periods can come every two weeks, every three to six months, or once a year,” she explains. Ross recommends a trip to the doctor if your periods are arriving more frequently than every 21 days, or if you go more than 45 days between them.
5. Vision Changes and Increased Clumsiness
Changes in vision can be a normal part of aging, or the toll of too much screen time in a technology-addicted era. But vision problems can also indicate the serious but subtle neurological effects of tumors, according to Dr. Santosh Kesari, a neuro-oncologist, neuroscientist, and chair of the Department of Translational Neurosciences and Neurotherapeutics at the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
That’s why it’s important to look out not only for blurriness or noticeably impaired vision, but also for increased clumsiness or accidents that might indicate slightly under-functioning eyesight.
“Patients may or may not be aware of vision loss with brain tumors,” he explains. “They may keep bumping into things on the side of body related to the vision loss and/or have repeated car accidents on the side of the loss.”
6. Unintended Weight Loss
In theory, plenty of people out there would be thrilled to see those numbers on the scale go down without any effort—but if your weight loss can’t be explained by changes in your diet or exercise regimen, this symptom could indicate a whole host of underlying health problems.
According to the Mayo Clinic, sudden, unexplained weight loss could mean cancer, heart failure, HIV, Parkinson’s, tuberculosis, diabetes, and more. Whatever the cause, you’ll want to get to the bottom of it with the help of a medical professional.
7. Sudden Weight Gain
Similarly, rapid weight gain without a change in your eating or exercise habits can be a cause for concern. Yes, most weight gain can be explained by an increase in calories, less physical activity in your daily routine, or the normal slowing of one’s metabolism, which happens with age—not necessarily a more serious medical condition.
But it could also be related to hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian syndrome, or a problem with your digestive tract, according to Harvard Medical School.
8. Shortness of Breath After Eating
Shortness of breath should always be a red flag. But if you experience this particular symptom after eating, chances are you have one of two things: a food allergy, or hiatal hernia.
A food allergy should be tended to immediately, especially if this is the first encounter you’ve had with new food, as things have the potential to escalate quickly in cases of anaphylaxis.
A hiatal hernia is an often undetected condition in which the stomach herniates through the diaphragm. “In some very large paraesophageal hernias, the stomach may push on the diaphragm or compress the lungs contributing to a sensation of shortness of breath,” according to the Medical College of Wisconsin. The fact that you’re experiencing symptoms at all means intervention will likely be necessary—potentially even surgery.
Between careers, family commitments, friendships, and other responsibilities, many of us are spread too thin these days. That’s what makes it so hard to tell the difference between run-of-the-mill exhaustion and something far more serious.
According to a 2015 report from the Institute of Medicine, an estimated 836,000 to 2.5 million Americans suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis) but have not been diagnosed. If you suspect your exhaustion is more than just the result of a few too many late nights, talk to your doctor before your symptoms get worse.
10. Frequent Headaches
While headaches can happen for a wide range of reasons and are not always cause for alarm, they can also be a sign of a tumor. “Headaches are very common and difficult to associate with tumor, but changes in frequency, type, or intensity of headache should prompt neurological evaluation,” Kesari explains.
“Headaches typically are due to the tumor size and growth rate. So larger tumors and faster growing tumors cause an increase pressure in the brain resulting in activation of pain receptors on the coverings of the brain, resulting in headache.”