Clearing's Chronic Pain Blog

How to Describe Chronic Pain to Your Doctor

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

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If you suffer from chronic pain, you know that trying to describe that pain to anyone, including your doctor, can be challenging. After all, your pain is your own. It’s a very personal experience shaped by many different factors. 

That said, the first step in finding relief begins with talking to your doctor. And if you don’t know how to get the conversation started, Clearing can help.

Keep in mind that there is no simple one-size-fits-all approach to managing chronic pain. Above all, you should always feel that you are in a non-judgmental atmosphere where you can have a free and open dialogue with your doctor.

When your doctor asks, “Can you describe your pain?” you may struggle to find an answer. Sometimes, it’s not very easy to put your pain into words. For example, what do you say if you are experiencing seemingly invisible nerve pain or fibromyalgia pain?  You find yourself silently thinking, “How in the world do I describe this pain?”

To start with, here is a list of questions the doctor may ask about your pain and its impact on your daily life. Take some time to answer these questions as best as you can. Write your answers down and bring them with you to your visit. 

Your conversation will be more effective if you can paint a clear picture of your symptoms. Accurately describing your pain is the first step in helping your doctor understand what you’re going through.

Questions your doctor may ask about your pain

  • Where is your pain? 
  • When did your pain start?
  • Is your pain constant, or does it come and go? 
  • Does it stay in one location or radiate to other parts of your body?
  • Does the pain seem to be associated with any particular injuries?
  • If so, can you tell me how the injury occurred?
  • Is there anything that triggers the pain?
  • Does anything help lower the pain?
  • Are you taking any medications for the pain? If so, do they help decrease your pain?
  • What other medications do you take? (This may be good for your doctor to know about.) 
  • Can you carry on your daily activities such as working, driving, or household chores?
  • Does the pain affect your mood?
  • Do you have any anxiety or depression?
  • How has pain affected your relationships with co-workers, friends, or family?

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Use specific words to describe your pain 

If you are thinking: “It hurts everywhere, and nothing helps!” then you may find the list below of specific words helpful. At first, these vivid words may sound oversimplified, but they can be very illuminating. Your doctor will get a sense of what you’re feeling.

  • Aching
  • Burning
  • Cold
  • Cramping
  • Deep
  • Dull
  • Electric
  • Heavy
  • Hot
  • Numbing
  • Radiating
  • Sharp
  • Shooting
  • Sore
  • Stabbing
  • Tender 
  • Throbbing
  • Tight
  • Tingling

Questions to ask your doctor 

While talking to your doctor, you will probably have a million questions bouncing around in your mind. Sometimes, it’s a lot of information to digest all at once. 

Before your appointment ends, make sure you have answers to any questions or concerns you have about your pain management plan. Also, make sure you have a clear and direct way to follow up with your doctor, should you think of any more questions. Here are some example questions of what you might want to discuss:

  • What is causing my pain?
  • What is the diagnosis?
  • Am I going to have to live with this pain indefinitely?
  • Will I be able to work?
  • Is there anything that will alleviate the pain?
  • What are the risks or side effects?
  • What are my medication options and how will they help?
  • Are any of these medications addictive?
  • Are there any prescription topical creams that I can apply?
  • Would physical therapy or exercise help?
  • What about complementary and alternative medicine?
  • Should I change my diet?
  • I am stressed out! What should I do?
  • Can I talk to a counselor?
  • Are there any support groups or online communities I can join?

Talking about your mental health

Research shows that many people with chronic pain also struggle with anxiety and depression. You are trying to cope with the physical pain. At the same time, you are facing the impact it has had on your life. 

You may have limits on your activities, hobbies and social interactions that you have never had before. Maybe you feel isolated because you are not going out with friends. Perhaps you are worried about missed work days and finances. 

Trying to make sense of this new normal isn’t easy. So, it is understandable if you are having feelings of anxiety and depression. It also takes a lot of courage to open up to someone about your mental health, though it is vitally important to talk with your doctor about your emotional and mental well-being. 

Symptoms of anxiety may include but are not limited to: 

  • Constant worry
  • Feelings of restlessness 
  • Feeling “on edge” 
  • Feeling like your heart is pounding
  • Breathing fast (hyperventilating)
  • Trouble sleeping

Symptoms of depression may include but are not limited to: 

  • Feeling sad or hopeless all the time
  • Lack of interest in usual activities
  • Unusual changes in appetite
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, get help immediately.

If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, know that there are resources to help you. Talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based training are just a few examples. Your doctor may refer you to a counselor, pain psychologist, or psychiatrist for further treatment.

To sum it up

When it comes to navigating your chronic pain journey, the first step is talking to your doctor. Clearing can help you get the conversation started. Effective communication of your symptoms will help your doctor better understand your pain. Soon you will be on your way to successfully find pain relief.

Many thanks to Parcilla Badhwar PharmD, a pediatric pharmacist, musician and pain advocate in Austin, Texas, for partnering with the Clearing team on this article.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.