Health scares are frightening for anyone. But when you're a young man suddenly struck with sharp pain in the genitals, doomsday seems imminent.
At least this is how I responded to Charlie horse-caliber pangs earlier this year, resulting in my first-ever surgical procedure.
But before I went under the knife, I had a medical adventure that taught me something I hadn't learned in college: When it comes to your health, you need to ask a lot of questions, and you need to trust your instincts — even when they seem slightly paranoid.
It was after midnight on a Tuesday when what had been an ache turned into pain — and then only somewhat controlled hysteria.
First I reported the problem to my girlfriend via iChat, right when she was trying to fall asleep.
Then I Googled "testicular pain," hoping for reassurance.
Could it be an inoperable hernia? Cancer? I seized on the one that sounded the worst: testicular torsion.
According to the National Institutes of Health, torsion "is the twisting of the spermatic cord, which cuts off the blood supply to the testicle and surrounding structures within the scrotum."
If surgery is not performed within six hours, most testicles cannot be salvaged.
That did it. I paid a middle-of-the-night visit to the school medical facility.
The on-call doctor checked me only briefly and insisted I pull my pants up when I tried to ask about a particular sensation from her touch. She suggested I probably experienced temporary torsion but assured me I was fine.
Fine is not how I felt, however. The next day I went to the hospital, where an ultrasound of my testicles and scrotum revealed that the first doctor was half right: There was no torsion. But there were two minor cysts. Verdict: epididymitis (swelling of the tube that connects the testicle with the vas deferens).
I'm no doctor, but I do trust my girlfriend, and I felt confident that I didn't have an STD, the typical source of this diagnosis. Plus, the pain was spreading around my groin.
But I started the prescribed course of antibiotics and hoped for the best.
Yet the pain was still so bad I had trouble walking. I imagined needing a lifetime supply of Viagra to compensate for whatever horrible damage was being done down there. Meanwhile, the discomfort had radiated to my abdomen.
After two days of antibiotics, I had no relief. I went to my regular internist, who'd been out of town. After placing pressure on my abdomen, she said it could be appendicitis.
I was skeptical. Everyone knows appendicitis means a sharp pain in the . . . appendix, right?
After a CT scan, I learned that my appendix was highly infected and swollen, pressing on nearby nerves, accounting for my pain. But by now — days after I first went to the doctor — my appendix was on the verge of bursting and had to be removed.
In fact, testicular pain is not an unusual symptom of appendicitis for young men. After my surgery, family told me about various friends who'd had a similar experience.
The surgery itself wasn't bad at all. An assisting surgeon and I chatted about the Super Bowl and agreed that Beverly Hills Cops is an awesome movie. He even granted my request for a Teddy Pendergrass lullaby, Turn Off The Lights, to ease me into my anesthesia nap.
After a laparoscopic procedure, I barely had any scars, not much pain, and today everything is fine. But had I waited another day for the correct diagnosis, my appendix might have burst, and my story might not have ended so well.
Most guys avoid going to the doctor. I might not have gone either if the pain hadn't been where it was. Next time I'll know not only to get help, but to keep on asking until I get better.
Alexander Heffner, a senior at Harvard University, is a regular contributor to the Tampa Bay Times.