When Should I See a Doctor About My Chronic Pain?
We’ve all experienced the occasional headache, woken up with a stiff neck, or pulled a muscle. Usually, you know when you need to wait a day or two for your pain to go away on its own or when to treat it with over-the-counter pain medication, a heating pad, or another simple at-home method. But too many people take a similar approach to chronic pain.
Chronic pain makes daily activities difficult, keeps them from getting a good night’s sleep, and limits their ability to walk, stand, or sit. There are many myths and facts about chronic pain, and some people put off exploring options for their pain because they think living with pain is a part of normal life and aging. It can be hard to know when to “grin and bear it” and when it’s time to explore if there’s something that can be done for your pain.
You don’t have to live with persistent, debilitating pain. There is help available and managing pain is usually easier, the earlier it’s addressed. So it’s important to know when to talk to your doctor about your pain. Read on to learn when to talk to a doctor about your pain.
How long is too long to ‘grin and bear’ pain?
There are two main types of pain: acute and chronic. Here’s a brief description of each to help you identify which kind of pain you may be experiencing.
Acute pain comes on suddenly, lasts a short period of time, and goes away as your body heals. Acute pain is often a result of an injury like a broken bone, burn or cut, or occurs after surgery or illness, such as strep throat or appendicitis.
Chronic pain lasts longer than 6 months. It may be caused by a condition, such as disc degeneration, or it may be a result of an illness, past injuries, or damage to the nerves. Chronic pain can also occur for no specific reason. This type of pain is constant, debilitating, and gets in the way of everyday life.
If you’re experiencing chronic pain that has lasted for more than 6 months and gets in the way of everyday life, you should see a doctor about what treatments are available.
You don’t have to put off seeing a doctor because you don’t know exactly what caused your pain, you think it’s a normal part of aging or you think you’ve already tried everything and nothing will work. The sooner you see a doctor, the sooner you’ll be on a path to finding pain relief and getting your life back.
When you should talk to your doctor about your chronic pain
Here are some signs that pain is affecting your quality of life and it’s time to see a doctor:
- You’ve been in pain for longer than 6 months
- Your pain keeps you awake at night and you’re not sleeping well
- You’re missing work because of your pain
- You can’t exercise or exercise as long
- You can’t do the daily activities you’re used to doing
- Walking, standing, or sitting is difficult
- Your pain impacts time spent with your family and friends
- Your pain doesn’t go away with treatments
- Your pain keeps worsening and/or spreading
Bottom line – when your pain starts to get in the way of daily life and limits your quality of life, it’s time to see a doctor.
How to talk about your chronic pain with your doctor
Describing pain can be difficult. How can you accurately explain to another person how pain feels in your body? Here’s some advice for talking to your doctor about your pain.
- Be specific. Instead of saying you have back pain, tell them if it’s your lower back or another area. If it’s back and leg pain, be sure you say that, too.
- Be descriptive. Does the pain move around? Does it radiate down one leg? Use specific words like sharp, stabbing, burning, aching, etc. to describe the type of pain you feel.
- Make comparisons. It can be helpful to your doctor if you compare your current pain to other types of pain you’ve experienced, such as childbirth or kidney stones.
- Give details about your day. It’s important to know how your pain changes throughout the day. For example, is it mostly when you walk, or does it get better as the day does on? Does your pain seem to get worse when you are stressed or not sleeping well? Instead of saying you’re “always” or “sometimes” in pain, say something like this: “When I wake up in the morning, I feel some aching pain in this spot here. It lasts about an hour and then goes away.”
- Talk about function. Be clear about what your pain prevents you from doing and how it interferes with your daily activities, like doing laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, or doing dishes. Let your doctor know if certain activities trigger your pain or make it worse, such as driving or going up and downstairs.
- Share your treatment history. Does medication help or have no impact? Tell your doctor about the history of your pain – what caused it and how long you’ve been experiencing it, how it’s changed over time, and what treatments you’ve tried.
What will happen when you tell your doctor about your pain?
After you talk to your doctor about your pain, they’ll provide a complete evaluation, run diagnostic tests to try to find the cause, and start you on a treatment plan. The best treatment option for you will depend on the cause and severity of your pain. Regardless of what’s causing your back pain, there are many ways to treat it, including medications, physical therapy, injections, surgery, and spinal cord stimulation.
If you’ve never heard of spinal cord stimulation, see how it works:
What type of doctor should I see for my chronic pain?
You’ll likely first talk to your primary care physician about pain management. That’s a great place to start, however when you’ve tried all the treatment options your primary care physician can offer and you still haven’t found the pain relief you’re looking for, then it’s time to see a doctor who specializes in pain management. Learn more about pain management specialists.
How to find a pain management doctor
There are doctors who specialize in management and can help you explore treatment options and get you feeling like yourself again. It’s important to address your pain before it gets worse.
If you and your primary care physician have tried all possible treatment options without success, the next best step you can take is to find a pain management physician for a consultation or ask your primary care physician for a pain management referral.
In many cases, consulting a pain management physician doesn’t require a referral. Whether or not you’ll need a referral depends on the policies of pain management providers in your area and your insurance.
- When your pain starts to get in the way of daily life and limits your quality of life, it’s time to see a doctor
- You don’t have to ‘grin and bear’ your pain – there is help and several treatment options available
- If you and your primary care physician have tried all possible treatment options, the next best step you can take is to consultant a pain management physician
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