The Best Way to Talk to Your Doctor About Controlling Pain

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Visiting a doctor can be intimidating. You wait and wait — and when the doctor finally arrives, he or she barely makes eye contact, wants to write you a prescription and move on to the next patient. When you want to talk about your pain, starting a conversation under those circumstances can be tough.

Communicating effectively with your doctor is essential when you want to work together to develop the most effective multi-modal pain treatment plan.

Here are some suggestions that will help you prepare in advance for your visits, and then learn as much as you can about controlling pain in the limited time you have:

Do your research before you go to the doctor. For instance, you may have read that glucosamine is not a good drug to take if you have diabetes. You may want to ask your doctor what he or she thinks about that and whether that information should affect whether you continue taking it.

Know what you want to ask before you arrive. I suggest making a list of your questions (even if it’s just one or two of them) and bringing that list to the doctor. I guarantee you that a doctor will not mind that you came prepared—or if you need to read from what you’ve written. In case you don’t even know where to begin, here are 21 questions that you should ask your doctor about pain.

Keep a journal or diary that records your symptoms and dates. This will show the doctor how much pain you’re in or when it occurs. Look for patterns. For example, the pain may be better or worse at a specific time of day, worse after certain activities or eating certain foods, or worse after certain emotions.

Describe your pain as accurately as you can. This should include when and where the pain occurs, and whether it is:

  • Sharp
  • Dull
  • Stabbing
  • Throbbing
  • Red or swollen

Also, if your pain periodically flares and becomes visibly swollen, for example, but then goes back to normal, take a snapshot of it while it’s at its worst and bring it with you to show to your doctor.

Share news about your life and about therapies that do not work. Changes in your personal status, work life, and physical condition all can affect your pain level. If you just got married, or if you lost your job, or if you are finding that you can no longer do the household chores you once did routinely, then you should tell your doctor. These changes may influence what he or she will recommend as part of your care.

You should also tell your doctor what does not work. If your doctor suggested acupuncture and it did not work, or you disliked it, say so. That feedback will not only will guide your therapy, but it can help the physician treat future patients who are similar to you.

Share which therapies work well. Just as your doctor needs to know which therapies don’t work, he or she also needs to know which ones do. If hot and cold compresses work well, be sure to mention that (even if the doctor never prescribed them). It may also reveal information about your condition. For instance, if your pain responds to certain medications better than others, that may tell your doctor a lot about the type of pain you have—and it will help him or her prescribe the most effective medications for you.

Write down what the doctor says. Make the doctor spell difficult words or write them out for you. The reason for this is that it will seem as if you understand every word the doctor is saying to you while you’re in his office—but once you get home, half of it will be forgotten and the other half will be a big jumble. Write everything down even if you think you will remember it.

Ask about new drugs, surgeries, or other treatment options. Let’s say you’ve read online about a neurostimulator for treating pain and wonder if it might work for you. Ask! However, keep in mind that your doctor may not be able to answer all of your questions. Drugs, devices, and medical conditions are very complicated, and he or she may need to refer you to someone else who is better able to evaluate whether the therapy you are inquiring about is a viable option.

If your doctor recommends a prescription painkiller, ask what it is and why you need it. There are lots of powerful and effective painkillers on the market, but many of them have significant side effects, including tolerance (building up resistance to it over time) and addiction. Ask if there are other drugs or therapies that you might be able to try instead.

Understand how to properly use any pain medication prescribed for you. Narcotic pain relievers are not for everyone suffering from pain, and they should be used selectively. In fact, I believe they should be taken only by people with moderate to severe pain, and that, for many people, other remedies work better and should be used first. But if you wind up taking any kind of opioid (narcotic) painkiller, remember these key points:

  • First, you can build up tolerance to them over time. This means that you may start out taking a small amount but soon need to take more to get the same effect.
  • Second, these medications are addictive. Not everyone who takes a prescription pain reliever to manage pain is going to wind up a drug addict, but it can happen to anyone.
  • Third, many people abuse these drugs. Some people get prescription painkillers from their doctors and divert them to the street market, which puts drugs into the hands of recreational drug abusers in your community.

Report any unusual symptoms if you’re taking a drug. You may be experiencing a drug interaction, which can cause nausea, retching, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, lightheadedness, headache, fatigue, brain fog, swelling, rash, hives, itching, and other bothersome symptoms. If your symptoms persist, call your doctor and begin keeping a “symptom diary” in which you track what you experience. A record of symptoms, dates, and times will carry a lot more weight with a physician than a statement like, “That medicine made me feel weird.”

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Meet Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi is an internationally recognized expert in pain medicine who has spent much of his career studying what pain is, why it occurs, and how best to treat it. That experience has led him to believe strongly that there are often ways to relieve or manage pain which are overlooked or discounted, and that the most effective treatment approaches are always multi-modal.

More About Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi