London - No longer able to reach the top of the book shelf? Dazzled by lights at night? Your body could be trying to tell you something.
Researchers believe subtle changes in our behaviour and ability to do routine things could be a sign of an underlying health problem.
A study from the Indiana University School of Medicine this month revealed that people whose faces can’t express surprise may be suffering from serious heart and lung disease.
The researchers showed 50 adults with shortness of breath and chest pain a humorous cartoon, a close-up of a surprised face, and a picture of someone in tears. Their reactions were then analysed - those with a heart or lung condition were found to have a significantly narrower range of facial expressions.
Here, with the help of experts, we reveal other potential warning signs in your everyday activities.
YOU CAN’T REACH THE TOP SHELF ANY MORE
If the top shelf suddenly seems out of reach, this may be due to the bone-thinning condition osteoporosis.
“This can cause sufferers to lose height because of bone loss in the vertebrae, so they suddenly find they can’t reach up for things the way they used to,” says Peter Selby, a consultant physician and osteoporosis specialist at Manchester Royal Infirmary.
It’s typical to lose about half an inch (about 1.2cm) in height every decade from about the age of 40 - but the loss of more than an inch within a year should be investigated.
The main concern with osteoporosis is an increased risk of fractures through falling. Osteoporosis can be treated with drugs such as bisphosphonates, which slow down the rate at which bone is broken down in your body. Giving up smoking and having a diet rich in calcium can also help strengthen bones.
YOU’RE OUT OF BREATH WHEN LYING DOWN
Finding yourself out of breath when in bed, even if you’re fine the rest of the time, could be a sign of heart trouble.
Orthopnea, as it’s known, occurs when the heart isn’t pumping properly - “so blood begins to pool in the heart and lungs,” explains Dr John Dearing, a sports injury surgeon at Carrick Glen Hospital in Ayr, who says he often sees people with the condition, as they think it is because they are unfit.
The breathlessness happens because fluid that has pooled in the legs during the day is redistributed and begins to accumulate in the lungs.
“Another sign is realising that sleep is more comfortable if their head is propped up. The last thing they think of is their heart, because when we lie down we don’t feel like we’re exerting ourselves.”
If this symptom describes you, talk to your GP.
DAZZLED BY CAR HEADLIGHTS AT NIGHT
A discomforting dazzle from car headlights at night can point to cataracts - where the lens of the eye becomes cloudy.
“When light comes into the lens, the cloudiness of the lens causes the light to scatter, which makes it difficult to see things at night,” explains Jeff Kwartz, a consultant ophthalmic surgeon at the Royal Bolton Hospital. Similarly, finding bright sunlight suddenly more dazzling can be a sign of cataracts.
HAVING PROBLEMS IN THE BEDROOM
Erectile dysfunction in healthy men could be an early warning sign of heart disease.
The link is well established, but research published last year by the Australian Heart Foundation showed that even in apparently healthy men, slight or moderate erection problems could signal that they’re at risk.
Erectile dysfunction was linked to a 37 percent greater risk of heart attacks, heart failure and arterial disease in men aged 45 and over with no history of heart conditions. “If there’s a narrowing of the blood vessels because of cardiovascular disease this can also affect the blood vessels in the penis,” explains Robert Calvert, a consultant urological surgeon at the Royal Liverpool Hospital.
He suggests going to a GP for a cardiovascular risk assessment.
WEAK ARMS HANGING OUT THE WASHING
If this describes you, it’s possible you’ve torn your rotator cuff - a group of tendons and muscles that connect the arm to the shoulder blade - without even realising it as it won’t cause any pain.
It may become noticeable when putting arms over the head, which makes the arm feel weak. “Patients only notice they have a problem because activities where they need to raise their arms, such as hanging up washing, becomes more of an effort,” says Professor Tony Kochhar, a consultant shoulder and upper limb surgeon at South London Healthcare NHS Trust and BMI The Sloane Hospital. “Patients may think it’s just part of the ageing process that they can’t raise their arms above their head.”
Physiotherapy may help, though the tear sometimes needs to be repaired surgically.
CAN’T BEND OVER TO TOUCH YOUR TOES
Spending hours at a desk can lead to a tightening of the hamstrings and lower back, making it difficult to touch our toes. “Regular calf stretches, yoga and moving around to stretch your back can help,” says Professor Kochhar.
Not being able to touch your toes could also suggest underlying heart problems. Researchers from the University of North Texas and several Japanese universities believe being flexible reflects having flexible cardiac arteries. Supple arteries allow blood to move freely through the body while stiff arteries require the heart to work much harder. Over time, this could lead to a risk of heart disease and stroke.
Researchers asked 526 healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 83 to sit on the floor with their legs outstretched and then to bend forward and try to touch their toes.
Using blood-pressure cuffs at each person’s ankles and arms, researchers estimated how flexible their arteries were. Adults with poor results on this test also tended to have relatively stiff arteries.
YOUR HANDWRITING HAS SHRUNK
A change in handwriting so that words are smaller and crowded may be a sign of Parkinson’s disease.
Micrographia, as it is known, is an acknowledged early symptom, explains Dr Raj Kapoor, of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London. “Parkinson’s affects the way the brain programmes movement of the muscles. As a consequence, the hands become stiff and slow, as the patient loses that rapid, flowing movement to their handwriting.”
STRUGGLE TO GET MOVING IN THE MORNING
Most people blame a bad back or a poor night’s sleep for stiffness first thing - and usually this disappears once you start moving around as the muscles warm up.
But if you’re still finding it hard to move around after two hours then it could be a sign of a form of arthritis, known as ankylosing spondylitis (AS), which affects 110 000 people in the UK.
With AS, the soft joint tissues of the spine become inflamed, wearing the bones down and prompting new bone growth. This causes the bones to fuse together.
“As isn’t often readily diagnosed as it’s dismissed as so many other things, such as stress or backache,” says Rob Moots, professor of rheumatology at the University of Liverpool. “It can take 12 years to get a diagnosis, during which time the stiffness gets worse.”
The condition is more common in men, with symptoms usually starting in their early 20s - the cause isn’t known. AS can be controlled with medication. But Professor Moots points out that the earlier the diagnosis the better the chance of effective treatment.
BLURRED VISION - ESPECIALLY IN THE BATH
Blurred vision or other eyesight changes when taking a warm bath could be a sign of the neurological disorder multiple sclerosis, says surgeon Jeff Kwartz.
This is known as Uhthoff’s phenomenon and while it’s unclear why heat causes it - it can also occur when sunbathing, for instance - MS affects the optic nerve. Other visual changes such as intermittent blurring or even blacking out are linked with the onset of the disease, even in normal temperature.
“Another key sign is losing colour vision, especially red, which may appear as a washed-out pink,” adds Mr Kwartz. In around a fifth of cases of MS, the first noticeable symptom is problems with the eyes. Usually one of these visual symptoms together with another symptom, such as pins and needles, is needed to prompt a diagnosis.
UNABLE TO OPEN YOUR MOUTH WIDE
You may have a temporomandibular joint disorder - this affects the joint between the lower jaw and the base of the skull.
This could be down to a torn disc of cartilage in the jaw. It can be caused by wear and tear, injury or grinding teeth at night. Eating soft food, avoiding chewing gum, holding a warm or cold flannel to the jaw after doing gentle stretching exercises and avoiding opening the mouth too wide may help.
Five percent of cases occur due to underlying ligament weakness, explains Luke Casarini, a consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon at Northwick Park Hospital, London, and The London Clinic.
The condition can be treated with surgery to loosen or realign the jaw or to remove inflamed tissue. If there’s a more gradual stiffening, it could be due to arthritis.
CAN’T LOOK OVER YOUR SHOULDER
You could be suffering with cervical spondylosis - “wear and tear” that can affect bones and tissues in the neck, says Professor Kochhar.
“The tightening can especially affect one side, depending on the activities you do. So if you do a lot of driving, it may be the left-hand side that stiffens from constantly looking over your right shoulder.”
Physiotherapy can help, and there’s also increasing evidence that yoga and Pilates can, too.
UNABLE TO PUT YOUR HAND FLAT ON TABLE
If you can’t stretch your hands out flat then you may be suffering with Dupuytren’s contracture, a condition that slowly causes fingers to bend into the palm.
The condition occurs as a result of small lumps or nodules forming in the connective tissue in the palm. “Over time, the nodules can contract until it is difficult to extend the fingers,” says John White, a consultant hand and upper limb surgeon at Queens Hospital, Romford, and the BMI The Garden Hospital, London.
“Untreated, these will become fixed in a permanently bent position.” Up to one in five men over 60 are sufferers, and a similar proportion of women in their 80s, he says. The cause is not clear.
Medication can help “dissolve” the nodules, while some patients may need surgery, Dr White says. However, the condition can recur.
FINDING IT HARD TO CRACK A SMILE
Not being able to smile easily may be a sign of a neuromuscular disorder, myasthenia gravis. The condition, which affects one in every 10 000 people, is caused by fluctuating weakness in the muscles, triggered by problems with the nerves that stimulate the muscles to contract.
As well as the mouth, myasthenia gravis can affect the muscles in the eyes, making the eyelids droop, explains Dr Raj Kapoor, a consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London. “This is because the muscles in the eyelids are very thin and can tire easily.”
Although there’s no cure, treatments to ease the condition include medication that can temporarily improve strength by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine, a chemical that helps the muscles tighten. - Daily Mail