How to describe your symptoms to your doctor

This subject is often glossed over, after all, how hard can it be to describe how you feel? The answer is that it is all too often pretty difficult!

The initial conversation between you and your doctor is usually one of the most vital few minutes you will spend with your doctor, as your subsequent diagnosis and treatment is strongly guided by what information you impart. For many of us, it may seem a simple process as long as the symptom is simple to describe and in an obvious place - if you have a sharp pain in your knee it is easy to pinpoint. However what if you have a rather less well defined uncomfortable sensation in your chest? You can't describe it as a pain and you can't point at the location with any accuracy other than 'it's on the left side'.

There might also be additional information that you can collect prior to the conversation eg for symptoms that come and go it can be useful to keep a diary. There are also APP's for use on a smartphone that can help you record symptoms and other factors important to the management of your health - we are trialing one such APP (MyTherapy) at the National Aspergillosis Centre.

Your doctor is skilled at guiding your thoughts to reach a quick conclusion, but it is worthwhile giving your first conversation some thought before you go to ensure that you are giving accurate information that you are happy describes what is happening and there are several tips and tricks that can help in this document in WikiHow. I will reproduce some of the document below.

Learn the basics of describing symptoms. There are four basic elements you should use to describe symptoms. Learning these will help you figure out your symptoms and best convey them to your doctor.[1]

  • Tell your doctor how your symptoms feel. For example, if you’re experiencing headaches, use descriptive words like sharp, dull, stabbing, or throbbing. You can use these kinds of terms to describe many physical symptoms.
  • Explain to or show your doctor the exact location in or on which you’re experiencing your symptoms. You want to be as specific as possible so say “the front of my kneecap is swollen and has throbbing pain” instead of something general like “I have pain on my leg.”[3] You should also note if the symptoms extend to another location.
  • Mention how long you’ve had your symptoms. The more specific date you can pinpoint, the easier it may be for your doctor to figure out what is causing your symptoms.[4]
  • Note how frequently you have or notice symptoms. This information can also help your doctor figure out what’s causing your symptoms. For example, you could say “I feel symptoms every day, especially after I work out,” or “I only notice my symptoms occasionally, like every few days.”
2

 

Figure out and write down your symptoms. It’s important to recognize your specific symptoms and write them down before you see your doctor. Not only will this help you best describe your symptoms, but will also ensure that you don’t forget to include any symptoms and how they affect you.[5]
  • Make sure to take your list of symptoms, including the basic information on them, to your appointment with you.
  • Note if symptoms are connected to specific activities, injuries, times of day, food or beverages, and anything else that exacerbates them. Also note if they affect your life in any way.[6]
3   Bring a current and cumulative patient profile to the appointment. A comprehensive profile of yourself as a patient includes information on conditions, hospitalizations, or surgeries you’ve had, what medications you have taken or are currently taking, and any allergy to medications or foods. This will help ensure that you don’t forget any vital information and also help your doctor understand your medical history.[7]
  • You may not end up needing to refer to it, but if questions about your medical history come up, having your patient profile available will maximize the time you can spend discussing your current medical issue(s).[8]
  • Bring your current medication bottles, which list the name & dose information. Make sure to include any herbal supplements you take as well.[9]
  • You can create a patient profile by summarizing your medical history on a piece of paper.
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Make a list of questions you have for your doctor. Write down a list of questions related to your most pressing concerns about your symptoms before you go to your doctor. This can also help maximize your visit and the time used describing your symptoms.[10]
  • Address any concerns or worries you have in your questions.

The article goes on to provide really good help with the conversation as it develops - it is well worth reading through next time you have to see your doctor.

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