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Women's Health: Your Doctor's Examination

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Signs of Heart Problems
  • Chest pain*
  • Shortness of breath*
  • Burning in your chest
  • Easy fatigue
  • Leg swelling
  • Coughing
  • Feeling your heart miss a beat
  • Feeling your heart race
  • Passing out*
  • Feeling light-headed
  • Shoulder or arm pain or numbness*
  • Feelings of anxiety or doom*
  • Chest heaviness*
  • *Call your doctor as soon as possible if you have any of these symptoms or go to an emergency room.
Signs of Lung Problems
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Blue nails or lips
  • Easy fatique
  • Feeling unable to catch your breath
  • Chest pain
If you have heart or lung disease, it is recommended that you do not exercise alone. The people you work out with, your coach, trainer, or health club, should know how to contact a relative or friend in case of emergency. Even the safest of activities can have unpredictable risks with heart or breathing problems (such as light-headedness leading to dizziness and falls). If you have been diagnosed with a problem, follow the recommendations of your doctor, especially with regard to medications and follow-up visits. These return visits are an essential part of improving your symptoms and ensure that the treatment is working effectively for you.

The most commonly diagnosed heart abnormality in women is mitral valve prolapse. This is a condition where the mitral valve in the heart does not completely close. It causes a heart murmur and might make you feel an occasional heart flutter, but unless it is associated with another heart abnormality, it usually does not cause any problems or limitations to activity.

The most common lung problem among women is asthma. This can be life-threatening if not managed properly. There are many types of medications available to control asthma, and if you feel you have any shortness of breath, wheezing, or chest tightness, even if just once in a while, see your doctor as soon as possible for treatment options. Exercise-induced asthma is coughing, wheezing, or chest tightness related to exercise, especially in cold environments, extremely dry or humid conditions, polluted air, or during allergy seasons. Exercise-induced asthma is often overlooked by physicians because the symptoms only occur during exercise, so be sure to emphasize this to your doctor.

Digestive System
Your digestive system, medically termed the gastrointestinal (GI) system, includes your esophagus, stomach, intestines, and colon, and gallbladder. These organs are in a delicate balance; disturbing that balance is a common source of frustration for many women as it leads to such unpleasant side effects as indigestion, heartburn, abdominal pain, nausea, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. The GI system is regulated by the same nerves that react to stress, so physical and emotional stress can negatively affect the GI tract.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition occurring in women more than men and is characterized by cramping, gas, and diarrhea after eating certain foods or also due to stress (including pre-competition stress). Foods that can trigger an attack include fatty foods, milk products, leafy greens, and certain fruits. If irritable bowel syndrome is a daily problem, it can interfere with nutrition and electrolyte balance. In mild cases, limiting triggering foods to smaller portions, combining them with nonirritating foods, or eliminating them altogether can solve the problems. Stress management and relaxation techniques along with diet modification can also help control flare-ups. Because IBS can be so disturbing to life activities, especially sports, if you have these symptoms frequently, see a gastroenterologist, who might prescribe medication.

Vomiting and diarrhea due to viruses or bacteria can make you dehydrated, weak, dizzy, and light-headed. You should avoid intense exercise for at least 24 hours if you have been vomiting or have had repeated diarrhea, and especially if you have a fever. As much as you can, replenish your electrolytes with sports drinks, and try to eat bland foods to restore your strength. A recommended prescribed diet for gastrointestinal infection is the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, and tea.

One of the most common causes of gastrointestinal problems is medications, especially pain medicines. Medications can disrupt the acid and bacterial balance in the stomach and intestines, leading to diarrhea or vomiting. Strong (narcotic) painkillers often cause nausea and vomiting; narcotics specifically can cause constipation. Anti-inflammatories, steroids, and antibiotic medications tend to cause stomach upset and occasional diarrhea.

Constipation is usually due to poor diet or not enough fluids; rarely is it a sign or cause of serious bowel problems. Iron and calcium supplements can lead to constipation. Constipation can be resolved with stool softeners or laxatives, although you should not make these a habit, as your body can develop a tolerance to them. Drinking warm fluids, especially caffeinated coffee or tea, can provide relief from constipation. (Cutting down on them can lead to constipation as your bowel readjusts to not having that trigger.) The most natural way to resolve and prevent constipation is to increase the amount of fiber and fluids in your diet.

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From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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