Why does my eye twitch? And other questions about the body odd

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Published April 25, 2012

| Real Simple

Why does my eye twitch, you might ask? Here's the answer - and other questions you have about the somewhat odd things your body does. 

An Eye Twitch or Other Tic
What’s happening? The term “tic” in medicine can mean any number of involuntary things your body does. In this case, we’re talking about those annoying little muscle twitches you get in your eye or other parts of your body, such as your knee, that bug you for a day or two for seemingly no reason. 

“A muscle is firing under your skin, because you are in a state of excitement or stress,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Cain,  president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the chief of family medicine at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver.

Why is your body doing it? “Your body is telling you that it is stressed or tired,” says Cain. “In the case of eye twitches, they can happen from fatigue, such as staring at a computer screen all day.”

What should you do? “For most of us, these twitches are not a serious problem,” says Cain. Generally, the body is just saying that it needs a break (tics can also be caused by anxiety and worsened by caffeine or alcohol). Cain recommends that you take steps to decompress at the sign of one: “Play relaxing music, talk to a friend, or focus on something else”—away from your computer screen, for instance. If those tricks don’t help, or if the twitches continue to plague you, speak with your doctor. Tics can be symptoms of such conditions as Parkinson’s disease, autism, Bell’s palsy, or, in the case of eye twitches, an injury to the cornea.

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A Sneeze
What’s happening? Sometimes a harbinger of illness, sometimes just a funny/annoying/necessary fact of life, this tiny interior explosion, like a cough, begins with an intake of air and the shutting of your vocal chords. But this time, when they release, the tongue and the uvula (that dangly thing at the back of your throat) block the air from coming out of the mouth, so it comes out of your nasal passages instead. And with it comes whatever secretions and germs are standing in the way.

Why is your body doing it? Just as a cough keeps the riffraff out of your airway, a sneeze kicks out the would-be invaders of your nose: pollen, bacteria, viruses, and dust. 

“It’s your body’s way of keeping the nasal passages clear and the sinuses sterile,” says Tylor. But there are other reasons your body may squeak out a sneeze. For instance, though doctors don’t entirely know why, you sometimes sneeze when you look at a bright light such as the sun (a response known as a photic sneeze reflex).

What should you do? Well, don’t sneeze with abandon into a crowd—you’ll be spraying germs. Instead, sneeze into your elbow, sleeve, or a tissue, and then wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer directly afterward. Tylor says there is usually no harm in stifling a sneeze, but given that this is your body’s way of clearing out something harmful, it is best to let nature take its course. Blowing your nose frequently when you have a cold will cut down on your body’s need to release the irritants. If your sneezes are associated with fever, chills, muscle aches, or a cough, you may have a cold or even the flu and might want to give your doc a call. Sneezes that come on seasonally or when there is a change in the climate and are accompanied by itching eyes or clear nasal drainage are more likely due to allergies, in which case your doctor can prescribe a medication to keep them under control.

A Sore Throat
What’s happening?
That raw pain that makes you feel as if you’ve eaten broken glass is a sign that the tissue lining your throat is swollen. You also have a multitude of pain receptors concentrated in the small area that is your throat—each one of which is stimulated with every swallow.

Why is your body doing it? Your throat can become swollen for any number of reasons. You might have a viral infection or a serious bacterial infection such as strep throat, which can cause intense pain. Postnasal drip, in which your nasal passages are draining mucous into the back of your throat, can be an irritant; and even acid reflux, in which acids from the stomach back up into the esophagus, can result in a burning sensation.

What should you do? “If the pain is so bad that you are having a hard time breathing or swallowing your own saliva, it needs to be immediately assessed,” says Tylor. You should also call your doctor if the sore throat is severe and is associated with a high fever or body aches, or if it is your only symptom but persists for more than two weeks. In the latter instance, it is possible (though not statistically likely) that the pain is a sign of something more serious, such as throat cancer.

Pins and Needles
What’s happening? When a nerve (or nerves) is being irritated for any number of reasons, and the signal that it typically sends to the brain is being scrambled, you get a numb and tingly feeling—as when your foot “falls asleep” after you’ve been sitting for a long time. “The doctor word for it is ‘paresthesia,’” says Cain, “and it means you’re sensing something that is not a traditional neurological response and doesn’t make sense to the brain.”

Why is your body doing it? Cain compares nerve communication to an electrical signal sent from one body part to your brain. Say you lean on your elbow: Those nerves are being compressed and cannot send a signal along the normal pathway. “The nerves can’t fire appropriately,” explains Dr. Sandra Fryhofer, a physician in Atlanta and past president of the American College of Physicians. “They can’t send the whole signal or the signal they send isn’t the proper one, and the body recognizes that as something being wrong.”

What should you do? There are plenty of benign reasons you feel pins and needles, such as crossing your legs for too long, or whacking your funny bone on the counter. They will generally resolve quickly—within minutes, most likely. Others, such as fluid buildup during pregnancy that can cause carpal tunnel syndrome (in which the radial nerve that passes through your wrist to your hand gets compressed) can be more troublesome and painful, but will usually go away on their own in time—say, after you’ve delivered the baby and your body has gone back to normal. But there are some conditions—such as diabetes, vitamin B12 deficiency, or when a bone is pressing on a nerve—that can cause long-term damage if they are not addressed, says Fryhofer.

If you experience pins and needles more than just occasionally and aside from any benign causality or they are accompanied by muscle weakness, talk to your doctor to see whether he or she should be investigating a more serious problem.

Goose Bumps
What’s happening? Tiny little muscles at the base of the hairs pull them to attention, which raises the skin around the follicles into little bumps. “The doctor term for it is ‘pilomotor erection,’ which is a fancy term for making hair follicles stand up,” says Cain. But the condition’s nonclinical name is spot-on: Goose bumps make us resemble a defeathered fowl.

Why is your body doing it? In cold weather, puffed-up hair creates a barrier of insulation to keep heat inside. And though this natural response still works for animals that are covered in fur, with the loss of hair we’ve experienced over the course of evolution, it’s not really doing much for us anymore. This function can also be triggered by the fight-or-flight response we experience when we sense danger: The goal here is to make us look bigger and scarier (think of a porcupine with its needles in full effect or a cat whose fur is raised). But, once again, our modern-day baldness renders the effect less than impressive. Pleasure, sexual arousal, or even hearing a favorite song can net the same primitive response, though experts aren’t exactly sure why.

What should you do? Nothing: Goose bumps are a harmless evolutionary holdover. And, hey, if they feel good, like when you hear a haunting melody or your better half tickles your back, then just enjoy them.

Bruise
What’s happening? Blood vessels under the skin have been broken and are leaking blood into the surrounding tissues. Bruises usually start as purple. As we all know from middle-school biology, blood that has not been oxygenated by your lungs is a dark color, which is why bruises first appear with that telltale eggplant tone. They then evolve through a series of colors, finally ending with a faint yellow/brown as the body begins to break down the pooled blood into a series of waste products and clear them away.

Why is your body doing it? A bruise is simply an indication of some kind of bodily trauma—minor or major. “It doesn’t serve a purpose,” says Cain. “It’s just a sign of your body’s ongoing healing attempt.”

What should you do? “The best treatment for a bruise is rest and ‘tincture of time,’ ” says Cain. Elevating the injured area and applying compression to it—as you raise your arm and then get it wrapped with a dressing after giving blood—may decrease the size of the bruise if you do it soon after the injury. If you’re really sore, Cain recommends trying over-the-counter painkillers such as naproxen or ibuprofen. You should see a doctor if you bruise very easily (from the most minor injuries), your bruises do not go away, or if you have a very large bruise (for instance, it covers a large part of your arm or leg), which can be a sign that you have lost a lot of blood.

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