Body Zaps, Pangs and Jolts: What Are They—And Should You Be Worried?

Body Zaps, Pangs and Jolts: What Are They—And Should You Be Worried?

From muscle twitches to stabbing headaches, your random body quirks, explained. (Photo by Getty Images)

Ever have a random jolt, spasm or pang and wonder, “What was that?” 

Sometimes pain and brief disturbances can occur rapidly, with no warning, and disappear as quickly as they arrived. Other times, pain can grow slowly and steadily over time, almost so imperceptibly it becomes commonplace or “normal.” Many issues are explained as a result of our bodies’ quirks, but sometimes these oddities can signal something’s off in our nervous system — the communication channel between our brain and our body.  

Here’s the lowdown on eight key nervous system complaints, and what to do:

Stabbing Headache
These sudden, sharp “icepick” headaches stop you in your tracks and feel so intense that they must be serious. Right? As it turns out, no. “You can get one or many of these primary stabbing headaches in a day,” says Dr. Mark Green, a professor of neurology and Director of Headache and Pain Medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “They tend to really scare people, but are most often benign.” They are more common in those with migraines, and often resolve with prescription pain meds, so talk to your doc if yours are frequent. But if the pain comes and goes quickly, don’t stress.

Thunderclap Headache
Thunderclap headaches come on quickly, level you with extreme pain, and are often called “the worst headache of my life” by patients exhibiting symptoms. “These headaches go from zero to full pain in an instant,” says Dr. Chad Hoyle, assistant professor of neurology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Headaches that come on suddenly, severely, and don’t immediately resolve like icepick headaches should prompt a visit to the ER — especially if accompanied by nausea or stiff neck. “We always look immediately at brain hemorrhages,” says Dr. Hoyle. “Those are very rare, but they have a high mortality rate, so they require immediate evaluation.” If it’s a new headache, unlike any other you’ve had in severity, don’t wait.

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Muscle Twitches
Especially with all the press after the Ice Bucket Challenge this year, more and more people are visiting their doc with concerns about muscle twitching — an initial sign of the condition ALS. “These quick random pains in the body are often musculoskeletal, although they might seem neurological,” says Dr. Hoyle. “Most of the time, it’s just a little hyper-excitability brought on by issues like stress and tiredness.” Unless noticeable muscle weakness, muscle withering, other disconcerting symptoms like numbness also accompany your muscle twitching, you’re most likely in the clear.

Back Pain with Coughing, Sneezing or Straining
If you have back pain that doesn’t resolve or worsens over time, it’s important to make an appointment with your doc — especially if that area of the spine hurts more when cough, sneeze or strain with a bowel movement. “This indicates to use that there’s something pressing down on the vertebrae,” says Dr. Green. “The most common issue is a herniated disc, but we’ll evaluate for things like tumors.” Beyond that, Dr. Green says any pain that is persistent and slowly increases with time should be looked at.

Related: 7 Weird Reasons Your Back Hurts

Numbness and Tingling
There’s a difference between tingling and numbness. Dr. Hoyle says tingling is the sensation you feel when your lay on your arm and it “falls asleep,” whereas true numbness occurs when you literally can’t feel an area of the body with added pressure — even if it’s just reduced feeling. Numbness and weakness that is progressive should get your most watchful eye, as a doc will check to make sure there’s nothing serious “pressing down” in the brain. A tumor would be the worst case scenario — but don’t worry until you are evaluated by a doctor. “Tingling and numbness can be fluky, the result of minor stress or poor sleep,” says Dr. Hoyle. “After an exam and taking a complete history, most often we are able to reassure patients. But watch it. If it grows, seek help.”

Visual Scintillations
Sparkly visions, seeing spots, flashing and zigzagging are common visual changes associated with migraines, and are usually nothing to worry about. “People often say that their vision has been affected in one eye, but it actually hasn’t,” says Dr. Green. “They are actually just occurring in a visual field.” So, if you see flashes of light or “floaters” before a headache strikes, this isn’t unusual. However, if you’re truly experiencing sudden compromised vision in one or both eyes, like seeing double, blackouts, or feeling like a curtain has fallen over an eye, it should be evaluated immediately for a more serious condition. “This could be a sign of stroke,” says Dr. Green.

Related: 18 Signs You’re Having a Migraine

Head Pain While Lying Down
Headaches that come and go are usually good, but headaches growing slightly and slowly over time should flag your attention. So, if you’re noticing a daily headache, especially one that seems to get worse when you hit the pillow at night, schedule a clinic visit. “Usually, a headache will get better when you lay down,” says Dr. Hoyle. “We worry about something more serious, like a tumor, when there’s a high-pressure headache that is progressive and continuous.” Other symptoms that concern physicians are those that wake you up from sleep, like vomiting. When it comes to potentially interrelated issues, if you’re ever in doubt, bring it up your doc.

Jabbing Face Pains
It might not be a headache, per se, but it’s just as jarring. Some people experience sharp, jabbing facial pain that can last from just seconds to roughly 15 minutes. “These are often triggered with pressure, occur in the cheek or jaw, and can get worse when you wash your face or brush your teeth,” says Dr. Green. These electric-shock pains are the result of a neurological condition called trigeminal neuralgia, which can be helped with proper medication (or sometimes, in severe cases, surgery). Talk to your doc to ease the symptoms.

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