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How to Talk to Your Doctor About Your Pain


If you are experiencing back pain or knee pain, you will likely visit your doctor to discuss your injury or condition. During your doctor visit, you will have to describe your pain. It is going to be especially important to let your doctor know how your back or knee pain is affecting your ability to function in your everyday life. 

Talking about pain can be challenging. This is because there are many different types of pain and everyone experiences pain in their own way. Further, there are limited tools to quantify pain, outside of the numeric rating scale (“rate your pain on a scale from 0 to 10 with 0 being no pain and 10 being the worst pain imaginable”). And two people can experience the same painful condition, for example sciatica, while reporting different levels on the pain scales. 

For general tips on how to communicate with your doctor at your next doctor’s visit, check out our previous blog here


Tips for Communicating Your Pain to Your Doctor

Pain is a warning sign from your body to tell you that something is wrong. It can present in many different ways. 

When it comes to communicating your pain, think of “what, where, when, and why.”

What is your type of pain?

Your doctor may ask you to describe your pain. This is sometimes difficult for some people to answer. You may not have previously thought of different types of pain or ways to describe your pain.

Here are several different descriptors of pain. Do any of them resonate with you? 

    • aching
    • burning
    • nagging
    • intense
    • pins and needles
    • sharp
    • shooting
    • spasms
    • splitting
    • stabbing
    • tender
    • throbbing
    • tingling


Where is your pain?

Be specific. This is going to be especially important if you have a tele-visit with your doctor over the computer. Let your doctor know exactly where you are feeling pain. Sometimes the doctor will ask you to use one finger to point to the spot that you are feeling the most pain. If you are feeling pain in multiple areas of your body, let your doctor know. 


When do you have pain? 

How often do you have pain, and how long does it last? Maybe it comes and goes, or maybe you are experiencing it all the time. Let your doctor know if your pain is worse during the morning or at night. Do you notice if your pain gets better or worse after certain activities? Does the pain bother you during household chores or playing with your grandkids?

It is very important to talk about your pain as it relates to functioning in your everyday life. Also let your doctor know your goals for recovery from your pain (for example, “my goal is to return to walking one mile a day”). Work with your doctor to come up with a recovery plan. 


Why do you have pain? 

You may not know the answer to this question until you visit with your doctor, but here we provide some things to think about:

    • Can you recall a specific incident that caused your pain? 
    • Do you have a history of previous injuries?
    • Do you have a medical condition that may make your pain worse?
    • Could your current or previous job be contributing to your pain?
    • Do you do any repetitive physical activities, like lifting weights or jogging? 
    • Have you had to stop doing activities you love due to your pain? 

The best way to implement these tips on talking to your doctor about your pain is to plan ahead for your next visit. Prepare a pain diary that tracks the “what, where, when, and why” of your pain for at least a few days. Come up with a list of questions for your doctor. And feel free to bring a close friend or family member who will advocate for you during the visit.

Written by Dr. Jenny Hunnicutt

Dr. Jenny Hunnicutt is a licensed athletic trainer with a PhD in Health and Rehabilitation Science. As the owner of Hunnicutt Writing and Consulting, LLC, she collaborates with global institutions, spearheading innovation and research among professionals and businesses in Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. Learn more at https://drhunnicutt.com.