Look for Secondary Symptoms when Assessing Health and Safety

Last month, I had a somewhat scary moment when a woman in one of my classes started complaining of pain on the left side of her chest. At first, I thought it was probably just a stitch or maybe a full blown cramp. But then she seemed to double over in pain. If the pain were any higher, she said, she’d swear it was a heart attack—although she had the wherewithal to concede this was unlikely. This is a younger woman who is in reasonably good physical fitness. Plus, she had been to my classes before and had never mentioned any medical conditions before, during, or after class. Then, she told me that she thought maybe she had aggravated a ski injury from this past winter. It was this comment that really got me worried.

Several years ago, I had a legit scary case in which Karen, one of my friends and favorite students, started complaining in class about a sharp pain on the left side of her chest. In this case, too, there seemed to be little concern of a heart attack. Not just personally, but in terms of strength, flexibility, and overall fitness, Karen was one of my best students. She said that, oddly, the pain seemed to be worse when she was lying on her back during the reclined stretches and leg exercises we did during class. She labored through till the end of class, barely, and she was still in pain when she went home.

Like most Pilates instructors, the most common questions I get about doing Pilates safely are either about pregnancy or osteoporosis. But this was very obviously, neither of those. I was so worried about this person that I started researching causes of upper left abdominal pain. Let me tell you there are more than a few. That night, after concluding it was unlikely a problem with the heart or lungs, I read up on all kinds of gastroenterology conditions for upper left stomach pain.

Long story short, Karen had a case of acute pancreatitis. I had read about pancreatitis but had dismissed it because Karen hadn’t eaten or drank anything before class. Plus, I knew her well enough to know that she wasn’t a heavy drinker. She didn’t really have any of the risk factors—or so I thought. First of all, I had missed that dehydration and exercise can also be the trigger for a pancreatitis attack. Secondly, I didn’t know at the time that Karen has suffered a rock climbing injury a few weeks beforehand. And while the “bumps and bruises” factor wasn’t all that bad, it was a bad enough injury that occurred to her pancreas to set off a case of acute pancreatitis. In Karen’s case, the doctors put her on IV fluids, antibiotics, and a few weeks of rest to let her pancreas heal, and while it was anything but easy on her, she did get better.

Better yet, just a few days ago, I saw the woman who got injured skiing. She confirmed that she had reaggravated her original injury, which made me happy and sad at the same time. Happy that there wasn’t anything more seriously wrong, but sad that my class had aggravated her injury. The upshot is that the woman was very nice and told me not to worry, it happens. After all, she came back. Which I should know—which I do know—all too well. But the whole ordeal and my own personal history made me think twice.