Weird Symptoms, Explained
What’s With That Twitch?
Foot cramps? Shivers? They’re usually just a nuisance, but here’s what these strange symptoms may be trying to tell you.
You Get Light-Headed When You Stand Up Quickly
The explanation: You could be mildly dehydrated. Or you might have orthostatic hypotension (a.k.a. postural hypotension), which occurs when blood rushes to your feet and away from your head as you stand up suddenly. (People with low blood pressure can be especially prone to this phenomenon.)
The fix: Drink plenty of fluids and be sure that when you stand up, you do it slowly, says Donnica Moore, a physician in Far Hills, New Jersey. If you see stars anyway, grab a table or a chair to stabilize yourself or sit back down.
When to see a doctor: If the light-headedness persists or if you actually faint.
Your Urine Smells Funny
The explanation: The change in color or odor could be from something you ate, like asparagus, or swallowed, like a new medication or multivitamin. Or it could be a sign of a urinary-tract infection, even if you don’t have pain or need to go to the bathroom frequently (the usual telltale signs), says Kathryn Teng, a staff physician at the Cleveland Clinic.
The fix: “Drink plenty of fluids to see if your body will clear it,” says Teng.
When to see a doctor: If the foul smell or strange color persists. A urinalysis can determine if anything unusual (like diabetes or kidney problems) is going on.
You Sometimes Get a Painful Swelling Under Your Arm
The explanation: It could be due to a plugged hair follicle or an ingrown hair in your armpit (from shaving, for example) or a swollen lymph node (from an infection).
The fix: Try putting a warm compress on it several times a day and see if it goes away within a week, says Teng.
When to see a doctor: If it lasts longer or if it worsens (and gets red or irritated). “It could be a sign of a breast infection, a cyst, or a tumor,” says Teng.
Your Hands Get Sweaty in Certain Situations
The explanation: Sweaty palms happen to everyone now and then, and they’re a normal response to stress or a case of the jitters.
The fix: Taking a few minutes to try to relax—by breathing deeply, meditating, or visualizing a tranquil place—may help prevent or relieve the sweatiness, says Teng.
When to see a doctor: If your hands are constantly sweaty. You could have hyperhidrosis, a disorder involving excessive sweating of the hands, feet, or underarms. Applying an antiperspirant on the palms can treat the condition, says Roshini Raj, an assistant professor of medicine at New York University and the author of What the Yuck?! The Freaky & Fabulous Truth About Your Body ($20; amazon.com). So can a medication prescribed by your doctor. In very serious cases, surgery can remove the part of the nerve that’s stimulating the sweat glands to become overactive.
You Get Foot Cramps at Night
The explanation: A subtle electrolyte imbalance (involving potassium, magnesium, or calcium) or mild dehydration may be triggering these cramps, says Teng.
The fix: Get up and walk around, then massage the muscle to help it relax.
When to see a doctor: If you get them nightly or during the day when you walk. A condition such as a blood-clotting disorder or nerve damage could be to blame.
Your Foot Goes Numb When You’re on the StairMaster
The explanation: When you move your feet in a repetitive way during a workout, or if your shoes or laces are too tight, the “tiny nerves between your toes can get pinched as you put pressure on your foot,” says Sabrina Strickland, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery, in New York City, and that can make it feel uncomfortably numb.
The fix: During your workout, wiggle your toes in your shoes a few times—and loosen your laces if they’re too tight.
When to see a doctor: If numbness happens during other activities or you can’t make it go away. You could have a nerve problem in your foot.
Your Body Jerks as You Fall Asleep
The explanation: These hypnic jerks, or sleep starts, probably stem from nerves misfiring as your brain and body downshift into sleep mode. “An interruption in your brain’s signal to your body to relax can cause the limbs and head to jerk,” says Clete A. Kushida, M.D., the medical director of the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, in Redwood City, California.
The fix: There’s nothing you can do to prevent these harmless jerks. Fortunately, they last only a few seconds.
When to see a doctor: If they happen frequently or disturb your sleep, as they might be a sign of sleep apnea or periodic limb movement disorder.
You Hear Ringing in Your Ears
The explanation: It’s probably tinnitus, a perceived buzzing or whooshing sound commonly caused by partial hearing loss, says Cristina Cabrera-Muffly, an otolaryngologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Medications, including aspirin and some antibiotics; allergies; and earwax buildup can be to blame.
The fix: There’s no cure for tinnitus caused by hearing loss, but “stress-reduction techniques, such as biofeedback, may be useful to decrease your brain’s perception of the sound,” says Cabrera-Muffly.
When to see a doctor: If the ringing is only in one ear or is accompanied by vertigo, balance problems, or facial weakness. These symptoms could indicate an acoustic-nerve tumor
Your Jaw Cracks
The explanation: The temporomandibular (jaw) joint that’s in front of your ear is most likely to blame. “It cracks when the joint isn’t moving correctly or fitting back into the socket properly,” says Raj.
The fix: It should self-correct.
When to see a doctor: If it’s accompanied by pain, headaches, or locking of the jaw. These symptoms could point to temporomandibular joint disorder, arthritis, or some other kind of joint damage that requires treatment (like wearing a mouth guard at night).
You Have Floaters in Your Eyes
The explanation: Those little white specks that drift across your field of vision are probably just tiny pieces of tissue that stray into the vitreous, the jelly-filled chamber of each eye, says Ruth D. Williams, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
The fix: Your eye will probably reabsorb them (or you’ll just stop noticing them).
When to see a doctor: If the floaters are black or are accompanied by flashing lights, which can signal a retinal tear.
You Always Sneeze in Threes
The explanation: “Sneezing is a protective reflex,” says Nathanael Horne, a physician in New York City. “There’s something irritating in the nasal passages, and your nose wants to get rid of it.” So you’ll sneeze until the job gets done.
The fix: Sneeze! Once, twice, or four or more times—all are perfectly normal.
Your Heart Races When You Wake Up Suddenly
The explanation: “When you’re startled, adrenaline kicks in, and your body’s fight-or-flight response is suddenly turned on,” says Moore. And, says Teng, if you wake up abruptly from REM sleep, when vivid dreams occur, your heart rate may be naturally elevated.
The fix: In either case, your heart rate should return to normal within a few minutes.
When to see a doctor: If you also have chest pain or dizziness.
You Get Full-Body Shivers
The explanation: “It’s probably a momentary glitch in the body’s ability to regulate its temperature,” says Raj, especially if it lasts mere seconds. (This happens more during the menopausal transition, since “hormonal changes can make body-temperature regulation go haywire,” says Raj.)
The fix: A shiver should go away on its own in a minute or two.
When to see a doctor: If a shiver lingers for days, which could signal an infection. “Just like a fever occurs with some illnesses,” says Raj, “you can get chills when your immune cells release chemicals to fight off bugs.” Treating the underlying infection should stop the shivers.
Your Mouth, Tongue, or Gums Itch When You Eat Certain Foods
The explanation: Chances are, you’re having some kind of allergic reaction. If the itching is mild and only in your mouth, it may suggest oral allergy syndrome. People with this syndrome react to plant-based foods that contain proteins similar to ones they are allergic to. For example, an allergy to birch-tree pollen can cause a reaction to such foods as apples, carrots, and almonds. Your reaction could also be a food allergy, the most common of which are to finned fish, -shellfish, soy, eggs, wheat, nuts, and milk. This is even more likely if you get a rash, tingling, or swelling, says Horne.
The fix: Mild, mouth-only symptoms should go away in a few minutes.
When to see a doctor: If you suspect you have a classic food allergy. And if you experience trouble breathing, go to the emergency room immediately. This could be a sign of anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal.
Your Fingers Refuse to Bend
The explanation: When your fingers have been in one position for a long time—while you’re writing or sleeping, say—the flexor tendons can swell and become stuck, says Strickland.
The fix: Use your other hand to bend the locked finger and hold it there for a few seconds. You can also ice the joint and take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as Advil, to ease the swelling.
When to see a doctor: If you still can’t move it a day later.
Your Eyelid Starts to Spasm
The explanation: Stress, fatigue, or over-caffeination is probably at the root of the problem, causing the muscle in your upper or lower eyelid to contract rhythmically, says Williams.
The fix: Close your eyes and take a few deep, relaxing breaths. “A spasm almost always resolves within a few minutes,” says Williams, but if you’re under chronic stress, it can last longer. (Fear not: You’re probably the only one who can see it.)
When to see a doctor: If spasms occur regularly or are accompanied by pain.