What 5 Common Symptoms Really Mean


Eva MuellerIf only your body were a little more honest, figuring out whats wrong when you dont feel right would be so much easier. But often a symptom—maybe its a sore back, cracked lips, tingling in your legs—has an odd or unexpected explanation.

Here, the surprising secrets behind five common complaints, and expert advice on how to get the relief youre looking for. Plus, four symptoms you must never ignore.

Cracked lips?
It could mean: You have a yeast infection
Dry, cracked lips may be your body crying out for lip balm—or a sign of a
yeast infection. “We all carry yeast on our skin,” says Shawn Allen, MD, a Boulder, Colorado, dermatologist, but cracks around the edges of your mouth may mean your body has too much.

What to do: Stop the growth
You lick your lips a lot when theyre chapped because that makes them feel better. But warm, moist saliva just encourages yeast growth when it pools in the corners of your mouth. The right remedy starts with the real source of the problem: dehydration. So, drink lots of water.

If your lips still crack, apply a moisturizing barrier like a beeswax balm or Vaseline. That should stop the pooling of saliva that encourages the yeast. Hydrocortisone cream or a topical antifungal medication may be helpful, too.

Next Page: Shoulder or torso pain? [ pagebreak ]

Shoulder or torso pain?
It could mean: You've developed gallstones
Severe chest pain screaming beneath the rib cage, a backache, shooting pains in the right shoulder—it sounds like a heart attack or a really bad case of heartburn. But maybe not. Gallbladder attacks can be mistaken for something else far from the source of the problem (to the right of your stomach). Your gallbladder stores bile that breaks down fats in foods when its released into the intestine. And painful gallstones can form when the gallbladder doesnt empty properly into the gut.

Women are twice as likely to develop the problem thanks to excess estrogen; the hormone increases the concentration of cholesterol in the gallbladder and decreases the organs ability to do its job. Some women try to treat the pain with acid-blocking drugs, which wont work because heartburn isnt the problem. “Acid has nothing to do with the gallbladder,” says Joel Levine, MD, professor of medicine in gastroenterology at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine.

What to do: Change your diet
High-fat, high-cholesterol foods like red meat and French fries worsen the gallstones-and-cholesterol connection. Whats more, “fat contracts the gallbladder more forcefully, so avoiding heavy-fat meals might reduce the chance of pain,” Dr. Levine says. Try eating more low-fat, high-fiber foods, like beets, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes. And if you have unexplained shoulder or chest pain, especially after eating a fatty meal or at night, talk to your doc about gallstones. Remember, too, that being overweight increases the risks.

Neon-pink gums?
It could mean: You clench your teeth
Pale pink is a sign of healthy gums. But if theyre bright pink, bordering on red, thats not good. It could signal damage beneath the gum line or long-term irritation and swelling. One surprising culprit? Teeth clenching. Beyond the bacteria and toxins from plaque and tartar that damage gum tissues and cause inflammation, teeth clenching (at night or when youre stressed during the day) puts lots of pressure on the gums, causing them to redden.

What to do: Try mouth guards
Believe it or not, for some patients dental mouth guards may do nearly as much for gum health as the proverbial brush-and-floss routine. Talk to your dentist about how to get the best fit. What else can you do? Give yoga a whirl. While there arent any studies to show a direct correlation between yoga and teeth grinding, anything that reduces stress just might give your teeth a break.

Next Page: Burning in the ball of your foot? [ pagebreak ]

Burning in the ball of your foot?
It could mean: Youve got Mortons neuroma
This thickening or enlargement of the nerves in your foot, usually between the third and fourth toes, feels a little like youre walking on a stone at first—but it may develop into a chronic jabbing pain if its not treated. Whats the culprit? Two common causes in women are high heels or high arches, says Marlene Reid, a podiatrist in Naperville, Illinois, and a spokeswoman for the American Podiatric Medical Association.

What to do: Get new shoes
“Foot pain is never normal,” Dr. Reid says, so dont just grin and bear it. If it is a neuroma, which can be diagnosed with a physical exam and possibly an ultrasound or MRI, switch to shoes with a lower heel and a wider toe box. Arch supports can help take the pressure off the foot, but custom orthotics may be necessary down the road. Some doctors administer cortisone shots to reduce the swelling of nerve tissue. And in extreme cases patients may need surgery.

Tingly thighs?
It could mean: Your jeans are too tight
That tingle could be the result of the Skinny Jeans Syndrome—a compression of the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve, which runs across the outside of your thigh. High heels might make it worse because they throw the pelvis forward, compressing the nerve even more, says Michael Port, MD, a pain-management specialist and medical director of the D.I.S.C. Sports and Spine Center in Marina del Rey, California.

What to do: Get bigger jeans
Stop wearing those tight pants and youll be amazed how quickly the tingling ceases. If you have a few pounds to lose, dropping the weight may take the pressure off, too. If the pain continues, Dr. Port says, a steroid injection may help reduce the discomfort. Another option: Try “jeggings,” comfy leggings disguised as skinny jeans; we like the Quinn Dark Striped Skinny Jegging by bebe ($109). A less-expensive choice is stretchy jeans with spandex, like the Silence & Noise Pull On Jean from Urban Outfitters ($58).