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Dr. Arthritis Shares: How to Communicate Your Pain Symptoms to Your Doctors

Dr. Arthritis Shares: How to Communicate Your Pain Symptoms to Your Doctors

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Communication between yourself and your primary care physician is important in the treatment of arthritis. But you already knew that. The more pertinent concern really is, how can you best communicate your symptoms to your doctor?

When you’re in pain, often the last thing you want to do is elaborate on it. However, inasmuch as doctors would love to prescribe a quick pill to solve all your symptoms, they won’t be able to do so if you don’t communicate your pain symptoms honestly and in detail. And as if this wasn’t already challenging enough unto itself, the added layer of an ongoing pandemic shifting consults to online platforms makes it even more difficult for patients to articulate and explain their symptoms clearly to their doctors.

To help make things easier for you, we spoke to specialists and gathered more information on what they want to know about your symptoms.

1. Where Are You Feeling Pain?

As arthritis sufferers, you will inevitably experience pain. One of the first things that your doctor will want to know in order to address this pain is where exactly you’re feeling it. Is it localized to a specific area or widespread? Do you feel it on just one side of your body, or both? Is it just on one specific spot or does it travel to other parts depending on movement? There is no need to name the exact joint. Whether your consultation is online or in person, you can easily point to the area and explain exactly how the pain manifests itself.

2. Be Clear About Your Pain Threshold

Doctors will often ask you to rate your pain from a scale of zero to ten. The problem is, we all have different perceptions of pain. As chronic pain sufferers, it’s not uncommon for your pain threshold to be higher than normal simply because you have no choice but to deal with constant joint pain 24/7. It’s important to put this into context for your doctor.

So for example, if you often experience pain at a level 3 but you’re typically still able to do your usual routine at this level, say so. Once your pain scale goes higher, will this prompt you to drink a pain killer? Does it compel you to call your doctor? These are things that help your doctor understand your pain scale at an individual level.

3. Tell Your Doctor if Pain Is Affecting Your Daily Routine

The functional impact your arthritis has on daily life is something that your doctor has to know and understand. Often patients hold back on this information because it seems very personal. Saying that you feel pain in your joints versus explaining that your pain makes it impossible for you to get out of bed can seem dramatic. But this kind of detail is exactly what your doctors need to know to understand how pain is affecting your life. 

The loss of function that you experience–for example, whether your pain is making it hard for you to get dressed, open doors, bathe, get in and out of vehicles, do chores, climb stairs, or sleep—can help doctors understand how debilitating the pain is and how it’s affecting your usual routine.

4. Go Into As Much Detail To Describe Your Pain

There is no universal way to describe the pain arthritis sufferers feel, but articulating the physical sensation of your joint pain can go a long way towards identifying the cause of your symptoms. 

For instance, inflammatory pain caused by Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is often described as throbbing, sharp and hot; shooting pain is typical in joints, as is a burning sensation in a specific area. Osteoarthritis (OA) on the other hand, is often described as joints grinding against each other—bone on bone. Sometimes, putting pressure on your joints makes it feel like you’re going to shatter that joint.

5. What Factors Affect the Degree of Your Pain?

This is an essential piece of information that can help your doctor assess what really is causing your pain symptoms—whether it’s from RA or OA, tendinitis, over exertion, or other common joint conditions—and how to best treat it.

For instance:

  • Does your pain feel worse in the morning because it’s accompanied by joint stiffness?
  • Does your pain ease after a bit of rest?
  • Does using compression products on the specific joint where you feel pain help?
  • Does applying heat to the affected area make you feel better?
  • Does the pain get worse when you stay in one position for extended periods of time?
  • Is the pain constant throughout the day? Or does it come and go?
  • Does movement worsen the pain?

6. Do You Feel Like Your Medications Are Effective?

For many of you, this isn’t your first rodeo. Regardless of what kind of arthritis you have, you’re probably already on some sort of treatment program to help manage your symptoms and/or disease activity. If you feel like something isn’t working in your current regimen, don’t be afraid to raise it with your doctor.

It’s important that you don’t simply stop or adjust your dosages without consulting your doctor, but if you think your medications have stopped working, your doctor can easily adjust dosages or change them to give you better results.

7. Tell Your Doctor About Your Emotional Health

Your emotional health can affect your physical symptoms. For example, arthritis sufferers are very prone to anxiety and depression, and this can often lead to loss of sleep, which in turn can cause painful flares. Again, it may seem like your emotional wellbeing is information that isn’t relevant to your treatment, but giving your doctor these details can be very beneficial in terms of finding a more sustainable, well-rounded approach for long-term pain management.

DR. ADAM GUNASEKARA MBBS BSc (Hons)

DR. ADAM GUNASEKARA MBBS BSc (Hons)

Medically reviewed by Dr Adam Gunasekara. He is the Co-Founder of Doctor Arthritis. He graduated from The Imperial College London with an MBBS (MD) - The article was written by the Dr. Arthritis Editorial Team.

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1 Comment

  1. she

    Thank you, DR. this article is very good in stating what Arthritis patients suffer…I have made a copy and will review it with my DR.


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