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June 2020

How Doctors Diagnose Chronic Pain

Pain presents a special challenge for healthcare providers. After all, no lab test or X-ray can tell them exactly what your pain feels like. And although some cases of chronic pain have a clear-cut cause—such as an injury or a disease like cancer—others remain mysterious.

Talking openly and honestly with your doctor about pain is the first step in getting a diagnosis and a treatment plan that can bring relief. As your healthcare provider searches for the root cause of your aches, he or she may:

Ask about your pain history

Your provider will want to know everything about your pain, including when it hurts, how much, and whether the feelings are burning or aching. You may be asked to rate your pain on a scale of from one to 10. One means you feel no pain and 10 marks the most severe pain you can imagine.

In the time leading up to your visit, keep a pain diary. Note these details so you can give your healthcare provider a clear picture. For instance, if you’re an author or musician and have aches in your hand, your provider may suspect you have writer’s cramp. If you often work with tools that vibrate, he or she might look for carpal tunnel syndrome.

Your healthcare provider will also want to know what medicines or other treatments you’ve tried, and whether these measures have helped. 

Talk about your other health problems

Sometimes breathing problems or heart conditions contribute to pain or affect your treatment plan. Besides the specifics of your pain, your provider will look at your charts and ask you questions about other medical issues, too.

Conduct a physical examination

Your healthcare provider will check your body for signs of pain that are visible or noticeable by touch. For instance, arthritis often causes warmth or redness in the joints.

Use electrodiagnostic procedures

These types of tests tell your doctor which nerves and muscles your pain affects. Electrodes, or thin needles, are placed on or in your body. With these tools, your provider may administer mild electric currents to see if your nerves are transmitting signals properly. Or, he or she may check the signals your body is already sending.

Take images

X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and similar technologies give your healthcare provider an inside peek into your body’s structures and tissues. Magnetic fields, radio waves, or small doses of radiation reveal potential sources of your aching.

Assess you for depression

All too often, pain and sadness go hand in hand. Depression may trigger pain or worsen existing pain and make it difficult to treat. Your healthcare provider may ask you questions about depressive symptoms, such as sleep problems, feelings of hopelessness, and fatigue.



Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2019
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