When people are “seeing things”, it’s often Mother Nature pulling a cruel trick on them because they’re losing their sight. Doris Lines was 79 when she started going blind as a result of macular degeneration, the commonest cause of blindness in older people. A couple of years later, she’d wake in the night seeing flashes that looked like playing cards falling, a beautifully dressed woman floating in mid-air, men’s disembodied faces and even someone sitting on her bed.
“I went to the doctor and he said, ‘We’d better get you tested for dementia,’” she recalled.
But that wasn’t the problem. Doris had Charles Bonnet syndrome, which affects an estimated 10-40% of people with impaired vision, though sufferers are often loath to report it. Almost all affected patients have serious eye diseases, including diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration and cataracts. “The hallucinations are the normal response of the brain to the loss of input from the eyes,” explains Dominic Ffytche, senior clinical lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College Hospital, London.
The visual hallucinations usually fade over time, but drug treatments are available. And there’s certainly no reason to suffer in silence – many people do not consult their doctor out of fear and embarrassment, as hallucinations are often associated with mental illness.
A hardening of the palms can, in rare cases, give a clue to ovarian cancer, several studies have found. “We’re not sure if it’s due to toxins coming from the tumour or the body’s immune system reacting against it,” says retired GP Dr Anne Stirling.
But doctors know that this lumpiness – palmar fasciitis – occurs when the tumour is quite advanced and subsides when the tumour is treated. It can also occur with prostate, lung, breast and other cancers, along with non-malignant conditions such as a rare form of psoriasis. But ovarian cancer’s other symptoms, such as pelvic pain, are often too vague to detect the disease until it’s too late – one 2004 study by the Mayo Clinic in the US showed that a diagnosis was made an average of nine months after the women concerned had spotted thickening on their palms.
Toothache When You’re Walking
You’ve got dental pain, so you need to see a dentist, right? Not necessarily. Discomfort in your jaw when you exert yourself – or get a bit upset or excited – is also a sign of angina, where the heart muscle struggles to get enough blood as a result of hardened, narrowed arteries. It could even signal a heart attack, especially if your toothache doesn’t subside when you rest.
“I woke up out of a dead sleep at 4am with severe jaw pain,” posted one 49-year-old woman on US health website minniepauz.com. When it repeatedly disturbed her sleep and was later joined by numbness in her right arm and light pressure in her chest, her partner drove her to hospital, where doctors confirmed she was having a heart attack. “I never felt any pain other than in the jaw,” she stresses.
“The heart doesn’t have regular pain fibres,” explains Dr Clare Craig, managing director of online GP service thanksdoctor.co.uk. “The brain interprets the messages from the heart nerves as having come from the other pain fibres that enter the spinal cord at that point, so it feels like the pain comes from the arm, shoulder, neck, upper abdomen or face.”
“I was very nearly black,” says Deana Kenward from Guildford, UK, recalling a four-month period when her skin kept getting darker. “I could have passed for Tina Turner.”
Too much time in the sun? Unlikely. What’s more, her gums, lips, nails and the creases in the palms of her hands had also started to darken.
But Deana was rather keen on her unexplained tan and didn’t think to mention it when she went to her local surgery several times to complain about feeling tired and sick. Her GPs simply put her fatigue down to having two young children and working nights in a supermarket.
It was only when her four-year-old son Daniel couldn’t wake her one morning that a hospital doctor realised Deana’s dark skin was an indicator of something serious. “If she doesn’t respond to steroid treatment, she won’t last another day,” he told her husband Roger.
Deana, the doctor concluded, had Addison’s disease. This rare disorder of the adrenal glands disrupts their production of cortisol and other hormones that are vital for regulating blood pressure – and Deana’s was dangerously low.
Luckily, she pulled through and her colour returned to normal, but she has needed steroids to keep her alive since. “My very dark skin saved my life,” she says.
Addison’s makes people looked tanned in about 70% of cases because the body compensates for the loss of cortisol by producing adrenocorticotropic hormone, which happens to stimulate the adrenal gland and pigment cells in the skin.
Dark Eyebrows With Grey Hair
A small but pleasingly eccentric 2005 study by Dr Uwe Wollina from Dresden, Germany, came up with the eyebrow-raising finding that men with greying hair and dark eyebrows were four times more likely to have type 2 diabetes than those whose above-eye hair was grey. Wollina has no concrete explanation for the finding, but it may simply be that there’s some coincidental genetic link between the two conditions.
It’s certainly worth bearing in mind for anyone with a family history of diabetes.
Another sign of a dicky heart is, oddly, having diagonal creases in your earlobes, according to some researchers.
“Older people are more likely to have earlobe creases and they’re more likely to have heart disease, so the association may not be stronger than that,” points out Craig. But if you’ve got furrowed earlobes, don’t dismiss it – have your blood pressure and cholesterol checked, particularly if you’re over 50.
A lump of the cold stuff is very nice in a Coke. But several studies have suggested that if you enjoy munching ice regularly, you could be iron-deficient.
No-one really understands why this is the case, though it may be that it eases inflammation in the mouth caused by anaemia and the resulting lack of oxygen being transported by the blood.
Ice is one of the most common cravings among mums-to-be, who often suffer from iron deficiency. But pagophagia, to give this odd habit its proper name, can be extreme. A 2009 study by the Kawasaki Medical School in Kurashiki, Japan, highlighted the case of one 37-year-old woman with anaemia who chomped on 30 or more ice cubes a day for 20 years.
Lumps on Your Heels
You may think they’re just a mildly annoying hindrance to wearing strappy sandals. But fat deposits on your Achilles tendons are also symptoms of familial hypercholesterolaemia, a genetic condition – affecting approximately 13 million people worldwide – where cholesterol levels may be 12mmol/l or more from birth. Doctors recommend a level of 5mmol/l or less.
Many sufferers go undiagnosed – young people don’t tend to have their cholesterol levels tested – and die of cardiovascular disease in their 50s, 40s or even younger. But if you have a lump and are found to have the condition, treatment is available.
“I once had a patient in her thirties with familial hypercholesterolaemia,” says Stirling, who in her 30-year medical career has had to interpret all manner of weird symptoms. “But putting her on statins brought her right back to normal.”
Taking Tiny Steps
Frequent lapses in memory are not always the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Several recent studies suggest that walking more slowly and carefully could be an early sign of dementia.
The exact reasons are unclear. But, says Stirling, “Walking is a complex activity that requires quite a lot of areas of the brain for coordination.” So it follows that if parts of the brain are deteriorating, putting one foot in front of the other might get that bit harder.
Unsteady walking is also a symptom of vascular dementia, which is caused by blood-supply problems to the brain, but it tends to occur when people already have other symptoms, such as poor memory or communication. People who develop Alzheimer’s, however, seem to have walking issues years before displaying other problems.
“It may be something we need to look at more as a way of diagnosing people sooner,” says Jessica Smith, research officer at the UK Alzheimer’s Society. Not only might this mean that people receive anti-dementia medication earlier, it could also help further research into the disease, which is thought to be caused by amyloid proteins building up in the brain.