10 Mysterious Pains You Shouldn't Ignore

By: Tom Scheve & Jennifer Walker-Journey  | 

bandaid on knee
How worried should you be about that lingering pain you've been having? Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

Most of us have experienced random, mysterious — and sometimes — lingering pain at some point in our lives. Some of shrug it off. And if we're lucky, the pain leaves the same way it arrived — on its own and without explanation.

These pains aren't so different from the strange sounds your automobile makes from time to time. Something clicks, whirrs or squeals, and then the noise vanishes as quickly as it arrived. If you're not mechanically inclined, you think nothing more of it.

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However, just like your car, your body's aches and pains often get worse over time, or they signal a much larger underlying problem. In these cases, ignoring the warning signs could be at our own peril.

While not every pain you feel isn't indicative of an emergency, there are other mysterious pains you simply shouldn't ignore. Which ones? Keep reading to find out.

10: Jaw Pain

woman with jaw pain
Jaw pain could be a sign of several different ailments. boonchai wedmakawand/Getty Images

Jaw pain that is strange and nagging can signal any number of health issues. One of the primary causes is bruxism, involuntary grinding or clenching of the teeth at night. It's fairly common — more than one in 10 people grind or clench their teeth while sleeping and many are unaware they do so. Any number of things can cause this, including stress, anxiety, alcohol and certain medications. Bruxism can cause jaw pain, headaches and tooth pain. If left untreated, it can also damage your teeth.

If your jaw pain is associated with a painful popping, that could be a temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, while sharp, a shooting jaw pain could be a debilitating nerve condition called trigeminal neuralgia. Seeking treatment early can correct or improve symptoms and prevent them from worsening.

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Another type of jaw pain, though, could be a sign that a heart attack is looming, particularly if the pain is on the lower left side. Heart attack pain is most often felt in the chest, but it can radiate to other parts of the body, like down the left arm, across to the back, to the stomach — as well as the lower left jaw.

Jaw pain associated with heart attacks tends to accompany other heart attack symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea, cold sweats or lightheadedness. Symptoms generally come on gradually and intensify over time. If you have jaw pain with any of these other symptoms, you should seek medical attention immediately.

9: Lower Back Pain

lower back pain
Americans spend billions annually trying to relieve lower back pain. boonchai wedmakawand/Getty Images

Lower back pain is rarely a mysterious ailment. According to the World Health Organization, it's the leading cause of on-the-job pain worldwide. Americans spend nearly $50 billion annually trying to take care of their backaches.

The high price tag points not only to the frequency of Americans' lower-back troubles, but also to the complexity of that region of our bodies. Our backs contain most of our bodies' infrastructure — muscles, tissues, nerve bundles, spines and vertebrae. Often, back pain can be chalked up to an injury in the muscles or tendons in the back caused by heavy lifting or awkward twisting. The pain can be a sign of fractures, disc problems or arthritis. Less commonly, lower back pain may be caused by spine tumors or an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

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But sometimes lower-back pain is a symptom related to kidney trouble. The pain may relate to the formation of a kidney stone, which will usually pass (a pain often described as worse than childbirth) on its own. If your kidney is infected, it will swell, causing the discomfort in your lower back. If a kidney tumor has grown large enough, it can cause pain in the lower back as well.

You should always get back pain checked out by a doctor, because when you ignore problems with your back, they can become chronic and only worsen over time.

8: Severe Abdominal Pain

abdominal pain
Abdominal discomfort is never good news, and you should see your doctor immediately if the pain is severe and persistent. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Your torso is a busy place, and an unusual pain in your abdominal area could be a sign that any number of things has gone wrong. Problems with nearby organs such as kidneys, lungs or the uterus could result in abdominal discomfort. Pain in your lower-right abdomen may mean your appendix is inflamed, and a quick removal is in order.

Upper-right-abdominal pain could signal a problem with your gall bladder. Upper-abdominal pain (along with upper-back pain) may be a sign of pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. Rest, intravenous fluids and antibiotics may resolve this condition.

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Abdominal pain also could point to an intestinal blockage. If it's not immediately treated, it can cause the intestinal tissue to die and create other problems. And finally, a swollen liver from hepatitis could also cause excruciating pain in your gut. There are different forms of this viral disease, some of which (hepatitis C) can cause liver failure.

Nothing causing abdominal pain is good news, but these conditions are all bad news. If you have unexplained, recurring or sudden abdominal pain, see your doctor immediately.

7: Calf Pain

calf pain
While an ache in the calf could be nothing more than a muscle strain, it could signal something significant, like deep vein thrombosis. Jan-Otto/Getty Images

Sore calves often mark the day after a good run (or a long climb up steep stairs). But sometimes calf pain — especially when not linked to any type of injury — may mean something else is amiss, and it's something you definitely don't want to ignore.

Your leg has a network of arteries and veins that move blood to and from your muscle and heart. The veins you can see beneath your skin are called superficial veins, and they move blood farther into the muscle itself, toward deep veins. Little valves inside the veins prevent blood from flowing the wrong way. However, clots may form due to a rupture in the vein, damage to a valve or an injury to the leg. This is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The clot causes blood flow blockage, and swelling, which ultimately causes pain.

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DVTs require immediate medical attention. If a clot breaks loose — an event called an embolism — it could travel through your body and block an artery in the lung (called a pulmonary embolism) or the brain and cause a stroke. These can be very serious and potentially deadly. Doctors usually prescribe anticoagulation drugs and keep tabs on the clot to make sure it's not growing. People with DVT who are overweight or who smoke should make lifestyle changes, as both of these factors increase the risk and severity of DVT.

6: Burning Sensations in Hands or Feet

burning sensation in feet
The most common cause of burning sensation in the hands and feet is decreased blood circulation to those areas. John Eder/Getty Images

If you've ever left your legs crossed too long, you've likely experienced an almost-painful tingling sensation in your legs and feet caused by decreased blood circulation. Fortunately, the tingling goes away quickly once you're standing and moving about, but while it's there, it feels like a cruel combination of pain and tickling.

If your feet or hands feel this way even when you haven't folded yourself up like a pretzel for too long that pain could be a sign of nerve damage. Symptoms such as tingling, numbness and a burning sensation all point to peripheral neuropathy.

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Peripheral neuropathy has many causes, including diabetes, alcohol abuse, vitamin B-12 deficiency and other disorders such as shingles. Injury, infections and toxins can also cause nerve damage. Often — though not always — treating the underlying cause of the tingling helps the relieve the painful sensations. Aspirin and over-the-counter analgesics sometimes help relieve symptoms, too, but antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, physical therapy or surgery have a greater chance of reducing or eliminating the burning sensations.

It's important to see your doctor if you're having these symptoms because having reduced sensation means you're less likely to notice injuries to your feet or hands. Injuries left unchecked can become infected, opening the door to a completely new set of problems.

If you're diabetic, getting your blood sugar under control will prevent further nerve damage (among other complications that arise from this disease) and may improve the existing symptoms of peripheral neuropathy.

5: Vague, Random, Unexplained Pains

Usually, pain in a certain part of your body signals that something in that area needs attention. In fact, this is the how pain benefits us. When pain becomes chronic — lasting for more than three months — it's time to seek help if you haven't already. If left untreated, chronic pain can lead to decreased mobility, impaired immunity, decreased concentration, anorexia and sleep disturbances.

Vague, random, unexplained pains are often the result of an injury, illness or disease such as arthritis or cancer. Finding the root, and ruling out anything serious, is crucial.

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When those random pains are widespread, it presents a new set of issues. The American College of Rheumatology defines widespread pain as pain lasting a minimum of three months that affects both sides of the body, below and above the waist and in the axial skeleton. Pinning a diagnosis on that pain can be daunting, requiring a battery of tests over the course of several months to years.

Conditions doctors may test you for include lupus, Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few. If those conditions are ruled out, your doctor may consider a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. This neurological disorder causes heightened sensitivity to physical pressure or pain, and often involves sleep difficulties. It is especially tricky to diagnose as there is no definitive diagnostic test.

Studies have found chronic depression also can cause "floating," random and otherwise unexplainable pains in various parts of your body. This may manifest in the form of back pain, headaches and heightened sensitivity to pain.

How can this be? It turns out that pain and emotion travel down some of the same neural pathways in your brain. For some people, it seems that neurotransmitters carrying news of gloom and doom can jump the tracks and result in actual physical pain. Usually, antidepressants, therapy or some combination of the two helps to resolve the depression and, with it, the pain.

4: Testicular Pain

testicular pain
Ongoing pain in your testicles should never go unchecked. See your doctor immediately if discomfort continues for more than a few days. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

You should never ignore testicular pain, as it often indicates a condition that could get worse if ignored for too long. It could be caused by anything from a hernia to cancer, or your spermatic cord could be twisted, causing testicular torsion, which is excruciating.

If you've taken a direct hit to the jewels lately, the pain should go away in a few days. If it doesn't, it could be a sign of a hematocele, meaning blood could be pooling between the protective sacs of your scrotum.

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Lingering pain also could be caused by inflammation of the epididymis — known as epididymitis. It's usually caused by a bacteria infection or sexually transmitted infection (STI). Finally, if you have a dull localized mainly to your left testicle — and when you're standing — it could be varicoceles, enlargement of the veins in your testicles.

None of these are pleasant, and ignoring them in hopes they'll go away could be worse. See your doctor immediately if you're experiencing any of these sudden symptoms.

3: Thunderclap Headaches

thunderclap headache
A thunderclap headache is one that comes on superfast and with excruciating pain and it usually is a symptom of more serious problems. Robert Recker/Getty Images

While headaches often appear out of nowhere, some come on incredibly fast, striking like a clap of thunder. These — aptly named thunderclap headaches (TCH) — are excruciating and patients often describe as them as the "worst headache of their life." The pain is very different from a tension headache or even migraine — it peaks within 60 seconds, and sometimes you can have other symptoms like fever, seizures or even altered mental state.

If you have a TCH, you should seek medical help immediately because these headaches could be a sign of something much more serious. Doctors aren't sure what causes thunderclap headaches, but they could be signs of a blood clot in the brain or bleeding in the brain. It could also be rupture of a blood vessel in the brain or a tear in the lining of an artery that supplies blood to the brain.

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Thunderclap headaches may also be a sign of other serious brain maladies. For example, severe headaches with neck stiffness or sleepiness may indicate a brain aneurysm or infection.

That's why these severe headaches require immediate medical attention. Early treatment improves the chances of a fast and full recovery.

2: Pelvic Pain During Intercourse

Most women have seen the warning about pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) on a box of tampons. PID is a bacterial infection of the uterus or fallopian tubes that results in red, swollen and painful tissue. The inflammation can cause scarring, which can lead to problems such as infertility. One common symptom of PID is pain or discomfort in the pelvic region during sex.

PID can also result in the formation of abscesses, or chronic pelvic pain. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) — most often chlamydia or gonorrhea — or any source of bacteria that travels up to the reproductive organs are the usual causes of PID. Left unchecked, these infections can spread to the blood or other tissues of the body. If a fallopian tube is infected and not treated, it could burst.

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PID affects three-quarters of a million women each year, and one out of 10 becomes infertile as a result. The pain may not be severe and may have other symptoms like frequent urination or abdominal pain. Early detection is important since doctors often can treat PID with antibiotics. However, in cases where the condition isn't detected early, surgery may be required.

Ovarian cysts can also cause pelvic pain, and while cysts often go away on their own, they may require medical intervention.

1: Persistent Joint Pain

joint pain
Long-term joint pain can be a symptom of many diseases, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images

Like vague, random, unexplained pain, persistent joint pain can be baffling. Often, osteoarthritis is the culprit. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage at the end of the bones wears down (usually due to age) causing bone to rub against bone. But it's not the only cause.

Joint pain could also signal arthritis, but a more serious form of it: rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that your immune system goes haywire and attacks your own tissue. This causes inflammation of not only the joints themselves, but of tissue surrounding the joints and even of other organs in your body. The result is pain and the breakdown of your joints.

Lupus, a disease that cycles through periods of flaring up and remission, may also cause stiffness and swelling in the joints. Other symptoms of lupus include fatigue, hair loss and fever.

One cause of persistent joint pain that most people probably wouldn't consider is hepatitis, a virus that causes inflammation of the liver. Need a good reason to get that joint pain examined by a doctor? Hepatitis is responsible for more liver transplants than any other condition. Many other infectious diseases — such as measles and chicken pox — can also cause joint pain.

Joint pain can be caused by any number of conditions, which is why it's important to get medical attention as soon as symptoms present themselves.

Originally Published: Oct 20, 2010

Random Pain FAQs

What does it mean when you get random sharp pains in your chest?
It probably has something to do with your heart. Some heart issues that can cause random pain include pericardtitis, a sharp, sudden stabbing pain that becomes worse over time. A heart attack can have similar symptoms.
Why do I get random stings on my body?
The most common cause is that your nerve impulses are restricted to an area of nerves. This usually happens when you lean or rest on body parts, such as the legs. Other causes include panic attacks and hyperventilation syndrome.
What does it mean when your body randomly hurts?
Body aches are one of the most common symptoms in a number of conditions. For instance, flu is known to cause body aches. Sometimes, daily activities like exercising, walking, and standing can also cause body pains.
What causes phantom limb pain?
Some experts believe phantom limb pain is caused by a unique response when the brain gives mixed signals. Once an amputation is carried out, the brain and spinal cord lose input from the missing limbs and adopt unusual ways to adjust to this new change.
How is phantom pain treated?
It is difficult to find a proper treatment to get relief for phantom pain. Usually, doctors prescribe medications and then opt for non-invasive therapies, such as acupuncture. Implanted devices or injections follow in more serious cases, while surgery is seen as the last resort.

Lots More Information

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  • Aneesh Singhal, MD. "Thunderclap Headache: The "worst headache of my life." June 25, 2019. (March 29, 2022) https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/thunderclap-headache-the-worst-headache-of-my-life-2019062516939
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) - CDC Fact Sheet." Sept. 1, 2010. (Sept. 30, 2010) http://www.cdc.gov/std/pid/stdfact-pid.htm
  • Frederick Wolfe. "The American College of Rheumatology Preliminary Diagnostic Criteria for Fibromyalgia and Measurement of Symptom Severity." American College of Rheumatology. Arthritis Care & Research. 2010. (March 29, 2022) https://www.rheumatology.org/portals/0/files/2010_preliminary_diagnostic_criteria.pdf
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