Who hasn’t felt something “off” in their body—a lump, a skipped heartbeat, a sudden sharp pain—and gone down an internet rabbit hole investigating what it could be, even before calling the doctor? Certain symptoms can be frightening, and doing your own research often leaves you even more shaken, imagining the worst possible outcome.
Of course, the first thing to do when you experience any unusual symptom is to check in with your healthcare provider. But worrying while you wait for answers doesn’t help anything—and experts say that in many cases, these scary scenarios turn out not to be as serious as you may fear.
We asked doctors which symptoms most often turn out to be false alarms, and their answers may ease your mind next time you experience one of them. Read on to find out which symptoms—while still warranting a call or visit to the doctor—may not be as dire as you think.
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There’s no doubt about it: Not being able to catch your breath, or take a full breath, is scary.
“Shortness of breath can be concerning, and uncomfortable, for most people, as they tend to believe it’s a heart-related problem,” says Mahmud Kara, MD, a physician at KaraMD. However, your heart may be just fine, he says.
“The most common cause of shortness of breath in non-serious medical events are post-nasal drip, acid reflux, or panic attacks,” explains Kara. Your healthcare provider will be able to get to the bottom of the issue and recommend an appropriate course of action.
“Similar to shortness of breath, chest pain can be alarming, as most people tend to think of a heart attack,” says Kara. “However, just like shortness of breath, the more common cause of chest pain in non-serious medical events are musculoskeletal (chest wall) pain, panic attacks, or acid reflux.”
However, if you’re experiencing chest pain that’s new, severe, or unexplained, call 911, the experts at the Mayo Clinic advise. “Don’t waste any time for fear of embarrassment if it’s not a heart attack. Even if there’s another cause for your chest pain, you need to be seen right away.”
Like chest pain, a thudding or skipping heart can be alarming. But as with chest pain, palpitations are not always indicative of a heart problem.
“I have often had experiences where patients experience palpitations in the context of anxiety, and they go to the emergency room (ER) and [are] found to be having a panic attack,” says Bruce Bassi, MD, an addiction psychiatrist at TelepsychHealth.
“Palpitations can be caused by a number of reasons that would not be worrisome to an ER physician, such as premature atrial contractions,” he tells Best Life. “Of course if the symptoms are new, changing, or associated with other symptoms, then go get checked out in the ER. Even seasoned ER physicians have been known to be fooled by symptoms that on the surface seem to not appear cardiac in nature, which is why they routinely obtain an EKG and run tests to check for cardiac enzymes.”
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“Numbness and or weakness on one side of the body can often be an indication of a stroke, which causes people to mistake numbness or tingling in your extremities (e.g. fingers or feet) with stroke symptoms,” says Kara. However, “in most non-serious medical events, this numbness or tingling can be related to more peripheral neurological conditions, like a pinched nerve.”
In all of these scenarios, Kara reiterates the importance of checking in with your healthcare provider, or heading to the ER or an urgent care center if necessary. “If you have concerns about any health symptom, it is best to consult a medical professional right away,” he urges.