Is This 'Normal?'
I still drive the first car I ever bought, a 2004 Honda CRV. Hard to believe it's nine years old already. I love my car. It's the perfect size for hauling stuff around and tall enough for me to see everything when I drive. Over the past few years, but especially in the last few months, my cute car has started to make more rattling noises. Turning either left or right will create a lovely chorus of sounds from the wheel bearings. I've grown used to these noises and assumed they were a natural part of adding miles to the car, or "normal."
My car mechanic thinks otherwise. The noises aren't normal and indicate areas of harm to the vehicle. He was surprised I drove the car as much as I do considering the new "symptoms." I just didn't know enough about cars to know the noises were a problem. You don't know what you don't know, right?
Over the past five years of patient care as a physical therapist, I'm surprised some of my patients have the same mentality about their bodies. They think new symptoms are "normal" and often ignore red flags for what may be more serious pathologies. I remember one patient with massive abdominal masses restricting lower-extremity lymphatic return and resulting in significant edema who thought, "This is just what happens when you get older."
The patient and family were shocked when they learned the mass was cancerous and felt terrible that they hadn't said something sooner, but just didn't know. This example is somewhat similar to patients who ignore small, acute symptoms until they develop into larger, chronic symptoms before receiving care. I've worked with many patients who introduce their background as "I think it started one or two years ago, but I just thought it would go away."
There are times when I've had to talk with my patients about their symptoms and refer them to a specialist. It can be hard to teach patients that what they are feeling isn't "normal" and they will need further medical attention. But, I think this is why I enjoy teaching so much -- I love seeing patients learn new information because I believe they're empowered by the knowledge about their bodies. I hope my message and their experience within a healthcare environment will help them continue to learn to better their quality of life, and the lives of their families.
What do you think? Have you ever been surprised by what a patient interprets as a "normal" symptom? Do many patients consider changes in their bodies to simply be part of the aging process?