Fix that health niggle

Rachel Carlyle / 13 February 2012

It won’t go away on its own... so stop procrastinating and sort it out now!

You may simply have a mild dose of ‘I can’t be bothered-itis’, or perhaps it’s a deep-rooted fear of the possible horror that lies behind that minor health worry that prevents you from addressing it. Either way, it’s time to take action. The sooner you address any health problem, the easier it is to treat.

NIGGLE: night-time loo visits

‘This is the cardinal symptom of undiagnosed diabetes,’ says GP and author Rob Hicks. In men, it could also be a sign of an enlarged prostate gland, but that doesn’t mean you have prostate cancer. ‘It’s almost always a benign enlargement, so it all depends on how much the night-time loo visits are bothering the man as to whether we do anything,’ Rob adds. ‘Nowadays we have very effective medicines that will overcome the problem. I haven’t referred a guy for surgery on an enlarged prostate for five years.’ Night loo visits in women can indicate something is pressing on the bladder, such as ovarian cysts or fibroids, so should be checked out.

ACTION: see your GP

If he suspects a prostate problem he can offer a man a Prostate-Specific Antigen test, but this isn’t a reliable indicator, and some careful discussion is required. In women, a simple ultrasound scan is usually the first step.

NIGGLE: back pain

Common or garden lower back pain, which affects 80-90% of us at some point, is best treated ourselves, according to specialist physio Sarah Key, who has worked her magic on the Prince of Wales, among others. It’s usually caused by the discs between the vertebrae drying out because we are not bending the spine enough.

ACTION: touch your toes

Sarah recommends simple daily exercises to rehydrate the discs and tone up supporting stomach muscles. ‘Try slowly bending over to touch your toes once or twice a day – which pulls fluid into the discs. If you can’t get there, work your hands down your leg in that general direction and hang for a few moments like a gorilla. Pull in your tummy as you unfurl.

‘Tone your tummy muscles by lying on your back and bringing your knees up to your chin. You’ll be amazed how much these simple things can help: there’s a window to sort out a grumbling back before it becomes serious, and it’s so important not to miss it.’

See Back Sufferers’ Bible by Sarah Key (Vermilion, £9.99)

NIGGLE: deteriorating hearing

Some hearing loss as we get older is unavoidable as the tiny hair cells in our ears that detect sound vibration become damaged. More than half of us have some loss by the time we reach 60; high-pitched sounds are usually the first to go, which makes consonants tricky.

ACTION: get tested

Research shows it takes people an average of ten years to seek help for hearing problems. In fact, the earlier you go the better the result. ‘If you don’t stimulate your brain with sound, it almost forgets how to process and understand speech,’ says Crystal Rolfe, senior audiology specialist at Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the RNID).

NIGGLE: a strange mole

It’s not the big, squishy ones you need to worry about but the small, dark flat ones if they are growing or beginning to look ‘odd’. That could mean part of the mole changing colour, or where one half looks different from the other – or perhaps the border is scalloped or ill-defined.

ACTION: get it checked out

Rebecca Maxwell, senior screening nurse at The Mole Clinic in London says, ‘We recommend getting your skin checked every year. As we get older, every single mole on our bodies enlarges as we age; what we are looking for is changes over a few months.’

Itching doesn’t always mean cancer, as moles naturally gather dry skin around them but, along with bleeding or oozing, it can indicate melanoma. Dodgy moles are mostly found on women’s legs and men’s backs – they’re the parts most likely to have been sunburned over the years.

NIGGLE: memory loss

Occasionally forgetting where you parked the car or what you had planned to do that evening are normal; getting lost on a familiar route or asking ‘What are we doing tonight?’ twice in an hour are not.

ACTION: see your GP

He will probably do a blood test to assess your thyroid (an underactive thyroid is a common cause of memory loss in the over-fifties) and your B12 vitamin levels. The menopause, excess alcohol and side effects of other medication, including for Parkinson’s, depression and some statins, are all possible culprits. If your GP suspects dementia you may be asked to take the Mini Mental State Examination, a short test to gauge cognitive ability.

NIGGLE: a dreaded test

Bowel cancer is the second biggest killer in the UK after lung cancer. Each year about 40,000 people here are diagnosed with it. Of those, around 16,000 will die. Yet if it’s caught early, it can be fixed. So do as Richard Barber did and make this the month you do the simple test...

Like everyone in England and Wales, shortly after my 60th birthday I received a bowel cancer test kit, which I put in a drawer and forgot about.

Two years later, I received a second kit, which coincided with TV and radio star Chris Evans announcing he’d undergone a colonoscopy and the subsequent removal of polyps. I’m stubborn, but I’m not a fool. Perhaps the Almighty was trying to tell me something.

Here’s what you have to do. From three separate visits to the loo, you have to retrieve a couple of small samples and put them on to a card that you pop into the Jiffy bag provided, and send it off Freepost to a laboratory for testing. Within a week you receive back the news generally that all is well – only 2% of those using this service are told to seek medical intervention.

In my case all was indeed well, and I was told that I’d be sent a new kit in two years’ time. Since the average age for being diagnosed with bowel cancer is the mid-sixties, this makes perfect sense.

Lynn Faulds Wood, former Watchdog presenter and a bowel cancer survivor, is a pioneer in encouraging everyone to be more vigilant and runs websites (see below) that answer the most frequently asked questions. ‘Women are more pragmatic,’ she says. ‘They’re used to having their breasts squashed when they go for a mammogram. A simple stool test is a walk in the park.’

There are other ways to detect the early signs that all might not be well. If you see blood in your stools and you’ve noticed a change in your bowel movements, you should see your GP who will either give you a kit or refer you to your local hospital for a colonoscopy.

ACTION: test yourself. Retrieve that test kit from the drawer now!

Bowel Cancer Information

020 8891 5937

Cancer Research

020 7242 0200

And while you’re about it...

Ask your GP or practice nurse to arrange three checks that take little time but could make a big difference to your health:

Have a cholesterol test

Total count should be below 4, and the LDL reading – the ‘bad’ cholesterol – should be below 2. A raised level is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease.

Know your blood pressure

High blood pressure is defined as consistent readings at or over 140/90, and since last August government guidelines say you should also be offered ambulatory monitoring to confirm the diagnosis. Raised blood pressure is an important risk factor for stroke and heart disease.

Get a prescription check

Get an annual review of repeat prescriptions anyway, but if you take a lot of pills and have forgotten what half of them are for, it’s worth asking whether you still need them all.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.