Aches, pains, and strange health occurrences are not fun to deal with. But the quicker we can name what’s wrong, the quicker we can treat the issue. We’ve researched five common health problems to help you identify their symptoms, understand the causes, and take the best next steps to treat them. Dr. Deborah Litman, M.D., a rheumatology and internal medicine specialist in Washington D.C., weighs in on a few.

SB Note: The symptoms of these conditions may look like other medical problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Plantar Fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is one of the most common causes of heel pain. It occurs when the plantar fascia — the thick band of tissue that runs across the bottom of your foot and connects your heel bone to your toes — becomes inflamed. Plantar fasciitis can commonly create a stabbing pain that starts with that first step out of bed in the morning. Throughout the day, the pain might subside, but it might return after long periods of standing or getting up from sitting. “In most cases, plantar fasciitis develops without a specific, identifiable reason. There are, however, many factors that can make you more prone to this annoying pain,” Dr. Litman says. “The good news? It’s treatable and should get better over time and with a consistent stretching regimen.”

CAUSES

Here are some things that can cause plantar fasciitis:

  • An increase in activity level (like starting a walking or running program)
  • Repetitive impact activity (like running or sports)
  • The surface on which you are standing, walking or running
  • Age — it’s most common in people 40 to 60
  • Tighter calf muscles that make it difficult to flex your foot and bring your toes up toward your shin
  • The structure or shape of the foot; how high your arch is
  • The type of shoes you are wearing
  • The weight you carry

SYMPTOMS

The pain of plantar fasciitis usually increases over time and is typically felt near the heel. Sometimes the pain can be sudden, occurring after missing a step or jumping from a height. The pain tends to be worse in the morning or after other periods of inactivity, like sitting at a desk or driving a car. That’s why it is often referred to as first-step pain.

calf stretch to help plantar fasciitis, a common health issue

The discomfort level of plantar fasciitis can sometimes lower with activity during the day or after warming up and stretching. The pain may also be more intense on bare feet or while wearing shoes with minimal support.

TREATMENTS & PREVENTION

Don’t despair! More than 90% of people with plantar fasciitis see improvements within 10 months of stretching and other simple, non-surgical tactics. If your symptoms continue after two months of treatment, your doctor may recommend steroid injections to decrease inflammation.

Here are some common treatments:

  • Stopping or decreasing activities that worsen the pain is the first step!
  • Rolling your foot over an ice-cold water bottle or ice for 15 to 20 minutes is said to work wonders and can be done three to four times a day.
  • Ibuprofen or naproxen can help with pain and inflammation, but consult your doctor if you feel you need to take these for longer than a month.
  • Since plantar fasciitis is aggravated by tight muscles, stretching your calves and plantar fascia is the best way to relieve the pain.
    • Calf stretch — Lean forward against a wall with one leg straight and the heel on the ground. Step the other foot forward with the knee bent. To stretch the calf muscles and the heel cord, push your hips to the wall. Once you feel a strong pull in the calf muscle, hold the stretch for 10 seconds, then relax. Repeat this exercise 20 times for each foot.
    • Plantar fascia stretch — Try this one in the morning before standing or walking. Sit down and cross your affected foot over the knee of your other leg. Grab the toes of your painful foot and slowly pull them toward you. If done properly, the bottom of your foot should feel like a tight band. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds and repeat up to 20 times per foot.
  • Cortisone, a type of steroid, is a powerful anti-inflammatory medication that a doctor can inject into the plantar fascia to reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Shoes with thick soles and extra cushioning can reduce pain that comes with standing and walking. Premade or custom orthotics (shoe inserts) are also helpful.
  • Most people sleep with their feet pointed down, which relaxes the plantar fascia and causes morning heel pain. Wearing a night splint stretches the plantar fascia while you sleep. It might be weird to sleep with at first, but this is very effective, and you can ditch it when the pain is gone. Also, untuck your bed sheets at the bottom!
  • Your doctor may also suggest that a physical therapist lead you through exercises that stretch your calf muscles and plantar fascia beyond the ones mentioned above.

Plantar fasciitis information sources used: Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

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UTIs

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in any part of the urinary system, which includes your kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. Most infections involve the bladder and the urethra. “Women are definitely at greater risk of getting a UTI than are men. A UTI in your bladder can be painful and annoying; however, serious health issues can occur if a UTI spreads to your kidneys,” Dr. Litman says. “Your doctor or gynecologist will typically treat UTIs with antibiotics, but there are certain things you can do to minimize the risk of getting one in the first place.”

CAUSES

Normal, healthy urine is sterile and contains fluids, salts and waste products; not bacteria, viruses or fungi. A UTI occurs when germs get into the opening of the urethra and start to multiply.

SYMPTOMS

If you experience a combination of the following symptoms, you might have a UTI:

  • Frequent urination
  • Pain or burning when urinating (and sometimes when not urinating)
  • Fever
  • Urine looks dark, cloudy, or reddish in color, or smells bad
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in the back or side, below the ribs
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Despite a strong urge to urinate, only a small amount of urine is passed
  • Women may feel an uncomfortable pressure above the pubic bone

TREATMENTS

As Dr. Litman advised, antibiotics are usually needed, but while you are waiting to hear back from the doctor, self-treatments for UTIs may include a heating pad to alleviate pain and drinking plenty of water to help wash bacteria out of the urinary tract. Avoiding coffee, alcohol, spicy foods, and smoking helps with UTIs, too.

PREVENTION

Doing these things might reduce your risk of contracting a UTI:

  • Drink plenty of liquids, especially water.
  • Drink cranberry juice. Studies are not conclusive that cranberry juice prevents UTIs, but it’s likely not harmful to try.
  • Wipe from front to back.
  • Empty your bladder soon after intercourse, and drink a full glass of water to help flush out bacteria.
  • Avoid potentially irritating feminine products and consider changing physical birth control methods that might hold bacteria.

UTI information sources used: Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University

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Varicose Veins

Varicose veins are enlarged, twisted veins. They can happen anywhere in the body, but they’re most common in the legs. “These pesky varicose veins are not considered a serious medical condition, but they can be physically uncomfortable, socially embarrassing, and can lead to more serious problems,” Dr. Litman says. “Obesity, genetics, hormones, and old age are contributing risk factors. It’s always a good idea to get a diagnosis from your doctor and to discuss the different medical procedures that can help mitigate serious cases.”

varicose veins, a common health issue

Spider veins and varicose veins can easily be confused with one another. Spider veins (right) are red or purple in color and tend to be smaller and flatter. Varicose veins (left) are usually blue, bigger, and bulge out on the legs. Image: Vein Clinics

CAUSES

Besides hereditary reasons, varicose veins are caused by increased blood pressure in the veins, and mostly in veins near the surface of the skin. Blood moves toward the heart by one-way valves in the veins, but when valves become weakened or damaged, blood can collect in the veins. This causes veins to become enlarged. Sitting or standing for long periods can cause blood to pool in the leg veins, increasing the pressure within the veins and causing them to stretch. This may weaken the walls of the veins and damage the valves.

SYMPTOMS

Everyone may experience symptoms differently, but some common symptoms of varicose veins include:

  • Color changes in the skin
  • Sores on the legs
  • Rash
  • Sensations in the legs, such as a heavy feeling, burning, and/or aching

Severe varicose veins may eventually cause long-term mild swelling that can result in more serious skin and tissue problems like ulcers and non-healing sores. Always consult a doctor for a diagnosis.

TREATMENTS

Medical treatment may not be necessary if there are no symptoms. However, varicose veins may sometimes worsen without treatment. Some successful treatment options may include:

  • Elevating your legs can help reduce swelling and relieve other symptoms. Lift your feet above heart level three to four times a day for about 15 minutes at a time.
  • If you sit or stand for a long period of time, bending your legs occasionally can help keep blood circulating.
  • Elastic compression stockings can squeeze the veins and prevent blood from pooling, and they can be effective if worn every day.
  • In moderate to severe cases, doctors might suggest certain procedures like sclerotherapy, thermal ablation, vein stripping, or microphlebectomy. You can find explanations of each here.

PREVENTION

Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, kicking up your feet up while sitting, not crossing your legs while sitting, and avoiding tight clothing are all ways to help prevent varicose veins.

Varicose vein information source used: Johns Hopkins University

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Night-time Leg Cramps

Night leg cramps, also called nocturnal leg cramps or charley horses, are painful, involuntary contractions or muscle spasms in your legs, usually occurring while you’re in bed. They affect up to 60% of adults and will usually subside within 10 minutes. The pain is typically in the calf muscles, although muscles in your feet or thighs might cramp as well.

CAUSES

Experts don’t really know what causes night leg cramps. As mentioned in reference to plantar fasciitis, sleeping with the toes extended can make calf muscles more susceptible to cramping. Here are a few other things that might contribute to night leg cramps:

  • Sitting or standing for long periods of time can make leg muscles more susceptible to cramping. Make sure to stretch your legs regularly.
  • Too much exercise can create overworked, fatigued muscles that might be more prone to cramping.
  • Sitting with your legs crossed or your toes pointed for long periods of time shortens calf muscles, which can lead to cramping.

SYMPTOMS

For most people, night leg cramps are merely an annoyance — something that jerks you awake every so often. “Seek immediate medical care if your cramping is severe or persistent, or if you’ve recently been exposed to any strange toxin,” Dr. Litman advises. “You might consider scheduling a doctor visit if you have trouble functioning during the day because leg cramps interrupt your sleep, or if you feel your muscles are weakening or not functioning properly.”

PREVENTION & TREATMENTS

These things might help prevent night leg cramps:

  • Drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration
  • Stretching your leg muscles or riding a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before you go to bed
  • Untucking the bed covers at the foot of your bed

If you wake up with a leg cramp, try these activities:

  • Flexing your foot up toward your head
  • Massaging the cramped muscle with your hands or ice
  • Walking or jiggling the leg
  • Some evidence suggests drinking a small amount of pickle juice may help relieve muscle cramps
  • Taking a hot shower or bath, or applying a hot towel or heating pad

Night leg cramp information sources used: Mayo Clinic, Healthline

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Nosebleeds

CAUSES

The two most common causes of nosebleeds are dry air — when your nasal membranes dry out, they’re more susceptible to bleeding and infections — and nose picking. Other things that might cause nosebleeds are nasal and sinus infection, allergies, aspirin use, bleeding disorders, blood thinners, chemical irritants, or the common cold.

SYMPTOMS

Most nosebleeds are not cause for serious medical concern and can be stopped with at-home treatments. You should seek emergency medical care if nosebleeds:

  • Follow an injury, such as a car accident
  • Involve a greater than expected amount of blood
  • Hamper your breathing
  • Last longer than 30 minutes even with compression
  • Occur in children younger than age 2

TREATMENTS & PREVENTION

If you get a pesky nose bleed, don’t panic! Try these steps:

  • Sit upright and lean forward — not back! Remaining upright and sitting forward helps you avoid swallowing blood, which can irritate the stomach or make you vomit or choke.
  • Do not pack your nose with cotton pads, tissues or tampons. This can worsen the bleeding by irritating the vessels even more. Instead, use a damp washcloth to catch blood as it comes out of your nose.
  • Gently blow your nose to clear out any stuck blood. Spray a nasal decongestant in your nose.
  • Use your thumb and index finger to pinch both nostrils shut, even if only one side is bleeding. Breathe through your mouth and pinch for 10 to 15 minutes. This puts pressure on the bleeding point and often stops the flow of blood.
  • If the bleeding doesn’t stop, repeat these steps for up to 15 minutes.
  • Once the bleeding has stopped, don’t pick or blow your nose, and don’t bend down for a few hours. Keep your head higher than the level of your heart.

To help prevent nosebleeds, try:

  • Keeping the nose lining moist with a thin, light coating of Vaseline, Aquaphor, or another ointment with a cotton swab three times a day. A saline nasal spray can also help moisten dry nasal membranes.
  • Using a humidifier may counteract the effects of dry air by adding moisture to the air.
  • For children, trimming their fingernails can help discourage nose-picking.

Nosebleed information sources used: Mayo Clinic, Healthline

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