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Are our bodies crazy? They give us toothache when there's something wrong with our heart and earache when we should see a dentist. As we'll find out, there are rational reasons behind all our weird mixed messages. You just have to know where to look.

Usually, a toothache is a sign that we're long overdue a visit to the dentist. Either that, or it's a sign of a perfectly treatable sinus infection. However, a toothache could be a sign of something more serious.

Here, we look at how our body's mixed signals could confuse you.

Toothache could mean a Heart Attack

If you are experiencing toothache on the left side of your jaw, especially toothache that worsens with physical activity or where your dentist can't find anything wrong, it could be a sign of heart trouble.

A 2009 study demonstrated that it was possible to tell the difference between toothache and pain referred from the chest by injecting anaesthetic into the gum. Pain that persists can be safely assumed to be referred chest pain, and not genuine toothache caused by a dental problem.

Furthermore, toothache often shows up before other heart symptoms (such as tightness or pain in the chest). One 48-year-old male was admitted to hospital with severe pains in his lower jaw, but no other symptoms of heart problems. An ECG showed that he already had changes to his heart function. Had he not been swiftly treated, he could have had a catastrophic cardiovascular event.

If you have toothache, your first port of call should probably be your dentist, but if you have a personal or family history of heart disease - or your toothache is accompanied by sweating or lightheadedness - you should raise the issue with a doctor and ask for an ECG.

And be sure to keep your teeth clean. Oral bacteria have been found to contribute to heart attack and stroke.

See a Dentist if You Have Earache

If you have earache, and your doctor rules out an ear-infection, pay a visit to your dentist. A dental abscess can cause pain in the ear on the affected side. This is because the nerve channel runs from the jaw to the ear.

Although, usually, you will have pain in or around your affected tooth, the NHS warns that that is not always the case. If you have a dental (or "periodontal") abscess, it is important that you see your dentist, as the abscess will not go away by itself. It must be drained and may require additional antibiotics.

If the abscess is especially severe or recurrent, a root canal may be advised.

Get Your Stomach Checked If Your Shoulder Hurts

It was Valenzuela and colleagues who, in 1989, first noted that shoulder-pain could be an unusual symptom of stomach ulcer. The pain is commonly felt in the right shoulder, and (unlike other conditions) it does not improve, no matter what position you change into, regardless of splints and supports.

You should particularly consult a doctor about this pain if it is associated with vomit like coffee-grounds, nausea, and/or lightheadedness

Shoulder pain? Stomach fine? Check your chest.

If you have pain in your shoulder, neck and armpit, you should see your doctor. This is especially the case if you have been coughing for 3 weeks or more, and/or have a feeling of general weakness or malaise.

These symptoms could be signs of pneumonia.

Your doctor will usually be able to diagnose you by tapping on your chest. When you have pneumonia, your lungs are full of fluid. This makes a different sound than healthy lungs.

It's important you are correctly treated with rest and antibiotics. Incorrectly treated pneumonia can lead to complications.

Still got shoulder pain? Stomach and chest both tip-top? Consider:

  • Your heart: While men usually have pain in their left shoulder and arm, women can have pain across both shoulders.
  • Your gallbladder and pancreas: Gallstones and pancreatitis are both known to cause shoulder pain among their symptoms.
  • Your spleen: Pain under the breastbone and into your left shoulder could be a sign of an inflamed spleen. This is uncommon in people who do not have underlying health complaints, or who are not frequent users of alcohol and/or recreational drugs
  • Endometriosis: If endometriosis (where the lining of the womb grows outside the womb) grows in the abdominal cavity, it can cause right shoulder pain.

More Mixed Messages: Ice-Cream Headaches, and Bad Backs

Ask for a Neck Massage When You Get a Headache

Many headaches are cervicogenic, caused by muscular problems with the neck. That means that, before you reach for painkillers, try massage or ask a trusted friend to massage your neck for you. Pain Science recommends you massage under the back of the skull, in the centre. You can reach this yourself. It's very soothing.

What about Ice-Cream Headaches: The ultimate mixed message. The cooling and warming of the capillaries, those tiny blood vessels in the back of the throat, send a message to the brain. This is confused with a jumble of other messages passing along the nerves and the brain can't unscramble them correctly, perceiving the pain as coming from your forehead. To cure your ice-cream headache, press your thumb to the roof of your mouth (like you're sucking your thumb). Your Mileage May Vary as to whether you want to do this in public.

When a pain in your back comes from your front

Back pain could be a sign of pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is where your pancreas is inflamed, and is most common in heavy drinkers (although there are other causes, such as infection or medication). In pancreatitis, the pain radiates into the back.

Back pain is frequently caused by kidney pain. It may be hard to tell the difference between pain caused by a kidney problem and pain caused by a back problem (such as muscular strain). A key way to tell the difference is that:

  • Back pain caused by a muscle injury is typically lower
  • Back pain caused by kidney problem is located nearer to the ribs, and deeper
  • Pain caused by kidney pain will frequently come with other signs such as: nausea, fever, abdominal pain, and/or painful or scanty urination.

Pepperoni Pizza and Pelvic Pain

If you love curries and other spicy food, I have some bad news for you. David Klumpp, researcher at Northwestern University, found that eating spicy food worsens pelvic pain.

In what has been dubbed the "Pepperoni Pizza Hypothesis", the researchers found that spicy food (and citrus fruits, caffeine, alcohol, and even tomatoes) contain a chemical that irritates the colon, and gets into the urine (aggravating the bladder). The chemical aggravates pain signals: the signals that send messages from the bladder, which (in patients with interstitial cystitis) send messages of constant pain back to the brain; pain messages are also sent from the bowel to the spinal cord.

Northwestern researchers believe that part of the problem lies in the bunching of the nerves in the pelvic region. Klumpp says:

"The convergence of these two information streams could make these...symptoms worse,"

These pain signals make pelvic pain worse, exacerbating a painful bladder condition called interstitial cystitis (a condition where 90% of its patients are women, and which causes sufferers to urinate up to 50 times a day). Avoiding spicy food could also improve the lives of women with Endometriosis, as approximately 71 - 87% of women with pelvic pain have endometriosis, with endometriosis being the cause of pelvic pain in many adolescents.

This is just a quick look the most common mixed messages, ways in which our brain and spinal cords mix-up signals. Researchers are still discovering new mixed messages and referred pain that we don't know about.

Who knows what we'll discover about referred pain in the future.

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