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‘It’s probably nothing’

Familiarity with our bodies is one of our greatest health assets. Why? It makes it easy for us to tell when something isn’t quite right—nature’s way of alerting us to a possible medical problem. If only the warning system came with a code: 1) See your doctor right away, 2) Wait a couple of days, 3) Don’t worry about it. Instead, it’s up to us to figure out when a wait-and-see approach is sound and when it could jeopardize our well-being. Here is a look at some symptoms that could signal a serious problem even though they may seem harmless.

Leg cramps. You walk a block or two and have to stop because of leg pain. After a little rest, you’re able to walk a bit more, but then you have to stop again. “Old age,” you tell yourself. In fact, the cramps could be a sign of claudication, or narrowed blood vessels in the legs. If blood vessels in your legs are narrowed, chances are you have narrowed blood vessels elsewhere. See your doctor immediately. Not only will your physician help you walk longer with less pain but he or she will also evaluate your cardiovascular health and address any underlying problems.

Effortless weight loss. Diabetes, certain cancers, an overactive thyroid and an inability to absorb nutrients are some reasons for unexplained weight loss. So if the numbers on the scale are looking good even though you haven’t changed your eating habits, it may be a sign of trouble.

Night sweats. You’re waking up night after night in drenched bedclothes. If you don’t suffer from hot flashes during the day, you can’t chalk up the symptom to menopause. Night sweats may be the result of a low-grade fever that breaks during the night, when body temperature is at its lowest. Chronic low-grade fevers may be a sign of infection or some other problem.

Changes in bowel habits. Every so often, a change in diet can throw your digestive system out of whack. But persistent bloating or constipation or any altered bowel habit that lasts more than a few days should be checked by your doctor to rule out colorectal cancer. Rectal bleeding should also be reported to your physician. Although it could simply be a sign of a harmless hemorrhoid flare-up, rectal bleeding could also be caused by colon or rectal polyps (precursors of colorectal cancer) or diverticular disease.

A stomach knot. If anxiety is the cause, the knot will go away as soon as your tension dissipates. But if the knot stays put, or the sensation grows more intense, accompanied by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or difficulty swallowing, see your doctor. A hernia, ulcer or tumor could be the cause.

A throbbing head. If you suddenly have severe, throbbing pain in one or both temples, don’t let the headache just take its course. It could be a sign of temporal arteritis, inflammation of the head arteries. Without prompt treatment, your eyesight could be affected.