Learning How To Describe Your Pain and Symptoms


Learning to become fluent with words that accurately describe the pain and symptoms you are feeling is one of the most helpful things you can do to create a positive working relationship and understanding between yourself and your medical professionals. 

One of the biggest learning curves you have when changes occur within your body is working out how to describe them.

Medical practitioners have their own language of medical terms which can be complicated to decipher and learn, but they are not always appropriate for your own use with other people or describing what you feel to your medical practitioners. Google and self-diagnosis of symptom names can be a slippery slope down the wrong track and it doesn’t involve the process of assessment, analysis and education that a medical practitioner would provide. Once you have spoken to a medical practitioner and they are able to confirm the names of the symptoms, then it is fine to use them. 

Trying to describe something that is so subjective and a different experience for everyone is a hard task – it takes time and patience to work it out and create understanding between you and your medical practitioners. 

There are four main things to remember when formulating a description: the sensation, the location, the timing and the intensity. 

The Sensation

Getting curious helps you open up and investigate what it is you actually feel when pain or sensations occur. Some commonly used words for describing pain and symptoms include:

  • Dull ache
  • Tension
  • Sharp
  • Stabbing
  • Heat
  • Burning
  • Stinging
  • Prickling
  • Cramping
  • Spasms
  • Itchy
  • Sensitive
  • Tender
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Throbbing
  • Radiating
  • Pressure
  • Swollen
  • Bloated
  • Bruised
  • Shooting
  • Sickening
  • Splitting
  • Tiring
  • Draining

It can also be a curious experiment to try to relate the pain to something else that is more universally familiar. For example, if you get really sharp nerve pain, it might be easy to relate it to hitting your elbow funny bone, or if you get tingling pain through your head you can liken it to an ice cream headache.


The Location

Where in the body?

Is it surface level or deeper? 

Is it in one spot, spread out or referred from somewhere else? 

The Timing

How frequently does it occur?

How long does it last?

What increases or decreases your pain, eg certain activities, time of day, or the timing of medication doses?

Your medical practitioners need to know how long your pain has been going on for too – weeks, months, years – and if it has changed over time. 

The Intensity

This is all about how strong does the pain or sensation feel, and can also be an indicator for how much mobility you have, if it impairs your mental function, how it affects and/or disrupts your daily activities and sleep.

Regardless of their medical specialty, most practitioners use a 0 to 10 point pain scale as a measurement tool; for example, 0 being pain free, working its way up the number scale from manageable to moderate to severe pain, and 10 being excruciating pain. 

Keep a diary of your symptoms and what you feel

In hindsight our pain is never as bad as it felt at the time, so keeping a diary of what you are feeling is the best way to keep an accurate account. Trying to keep track of the symptoms without recording them can be emotionally and mentally taxing, getting it out of your head and body and onto paper is a good way to reduce stress as much as possible. Read more about keeping a Health Diary here. 

Remember, your medical practitioners have a body of knowledge, but you have knowledge of your body. Be curious and listen to it. Learn it’s language and keep a record. The more knowledge we have of our body, the better we can take care of it. 

Take care, Readers. I’ll keep the light on.


Tips For Booking Appointments

I’ve had a lot of medical appointments over the years and I have learnt a few tips from my experiences and from the medical practitioners and their staff.

Progress Is Not Linear

Once we have taken care of the immediate issues, diving into medical investigations can make it hard to work out if you are making progress.

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