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Should I call my doctor?

How to know it's time to pay your provider a visit

Nobody knows your body as well as you do.

Everyone feels a little out of sorts every now and then. Perhaps you feel dizzy, out of breath, fatigued or have a strange tweak of pain. When do you call your doctor for a visit without thinking that you’re behaving like a hypochondriac?

It can be hard to decide what symptoms are serious enough that they warrant making an appointment. Sometimes the symptoms can appear unclear.

For example, warning signs of heart attack in women and men are very different. While chest pain is a common indicator in men, only about half of women who have a heart attack will complain of chest pain, according to the National Institutes of Health. Instead, women often have warning signs such as fatigue, nausea and neck and jaw pain.

Clearly, if you are having symptoms related to a heart attack, trouble breathing, severe abdominal pain or are bleeding profusely, call 911 or have someone accompany you to a hospital’s emergency room.

If a spouse or family member voices concerns that you look pale or sweaty and urges you to go to the ER head to the hospital right away, warned Dr. James Min, a family physician at Novant Health UVA Health System Bull Run Family Medicine in Haymarket, Virginia.

“Timing is very important for getting treatment in case of a stroke or heart attack,” Min said. “Symptoms of stroke include tingling and numbness in the face, arm and leg, confusion, dizziness, trouble seeing and speaking.” These symptoms require immediate medical attention.

Likewise, chest pain or pain in the arms, neck and jaw, shortness of breath, nausea or cold sweats could indicate a heart attack. If you experience any of these, head to the nearest ER for help. “Getting treated in a catheterization lab quickly can prevent permanent damage to the heart,” Min said.

Sometimes the symptoms aren’t as dramatic, so what to do? Calling your doctor’s office for advice is a good first step. A nurse can offer suggestions over the phone on what to do next.

Dr. Min said his office will always attempt to squeeze in patients or if he believes the patient needs to see a specialist, the office will try to facilitate that visit as quickly as possible.

A nurse triage line offers patients the opportunity to call for advice and help with getting proper treatment.

If you’re traveling and not near your primary provider’s office, consider seeking help at an urgent care clinic. These clinics can help with non-life-threatening problems such as allergic reactions, sinus and ear infections, conjunctivitis, nausea, diarrhea, sprains and cuts.

If you’re being treated for a chronic condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, high cholesterol or a similar problem, you may generally manage your daily situation on your own. However, if you start feeling badly, this is a pretty good sign you should see your doctor right away.

A good practice is have a conversation with your primary care doctor about symptoms for your chronic condition to learn what is normal and what isn’t, so that you have clarity about when you need professional help.

Min said that people with chronic conditions like diabetes should see their doctors every three months. He said health care today is more of a partnership than it used to be. “In the old days, a doctor would tell you what to do,” he said. “Today, I ask ‘what are you concerned about?’” Added to that, Min said, it’s important for patients with diabetes and other ongoing issues to show up for scheduled appointments and take ownership of their health.

And be aware when things just don’t feel right. Signs of trouble for someone with diabetes might be increased thirst, needing to go to the bathroom more frequently or developing foot sores. People with high blood pressure might experience unusual muscle fatigue or weakness.

“Mothers have amazing intuition that something is not right with their child,” Min said. “People should follow their intuition” with their own health, as well.

Not every pain is a sign of a major illness, but it’s good to be aware of in the body and mind. When in doubt about calling the doctor, remember it’s always better to be safe than sorry because your life may depend on it.

Published: 10/7/2015