Wonder What’s Causing That Pain? Get to the Bottom of It

Just like eye color, height, and taste in music, people have different responses to pain. What one person finds excruciating may be a minor annoyance to the next.

Because it’s so variable, pain can be difficult to diagnose, making it even more frustrating for sufferers and their healthcare providers. To streamline the process, here are some things to note about your pain. Talking about these factors with your doctor will lead to a more productive conversation about your pain and a more positive treatment result.1

First, ask yourself whether it’s time to see a healthcare professional about your pain. If you’re reading this article, chances are, it is. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, you should see a doctor if you have severe pain that doesn’t get better with rest; numbness or tingling; or pain following an injury or fall. You should also see your doctor if you have pain coupled with numbness in your legs; weakness; trouble urinating; fever; or unexplained weight loss.

Questions to ask yourself about your pain

Before your appointment, here are some questions to ask yourself about your pain:

What happened? Some people can pinpoint the exact moment they started feeling pain. Maybe they were in a car accident or slipped and fell while shoveling snow. In other cases, the pain comes on more gradually, with no obvious cause. How quickly your pain appeared — and whether you can link it to a particular event — are important factors to note.2

Where is it? Do your best to locate the precise area on your body where you feel the pain. Be ready to point out this location to your doctor. If you can, make an anatomical drawing (or, if you are not an artist, find one online) and document the hot spot for your pain.3 The location of the pain can be an indicator of what’s causing you discomfort. For example, if you’re experiencing pelvic pain, it may be a sign of endometriosis, which is a chronic and painful disease affecting an estimated 1 in 10 women. For more information on endometriosis, you can visit HealthyWomen and MEinEndo.com, which offers resources for women such as a symptom tracker, checklist, and healthcare provider discussion guide through the Get in the Know about ME in EndoMEtriosis campaign.

How long? Pain can be acute or chronic. Acute pain comes on all of a sudden, in response to something specific, like a cut or burn. It’s usually sharp and biting. Although acute pain is unpleasant, it’s a good thing — your body is telling you something’s wrong, and you need to address it. Common causes of acute pain include a cut or burn, surgery, dental work, broken bones, and childbirth.4

Chronic pain, on the other hand, persists past three months.5 It may originally stem from an acute illness or injury, but the pain signals remain active for months, sometimes years. As a result, people with this type of long-term pain can develop limited mobility, less flexibility, decreased strength, tense muscles, low energy, depression, anxiety, and changes in appetite. Headaches, arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, and nerve pain are all examples of chronic pain.6

How does the pain feel? It hurts, of course, but the exact sensation of the pain can give healthcare providers a clue as to its cause and, therefore, how best to treat it. Some of the terms used to describe pain include sharp and stabbing; shooting; radiating; nauseating; throbbing; dull; achy; burning; nagging; or crampy.3

Is the area tender? When you push on or touch the painful spot, does the pain get worse? Your healthcare professional will likely touch (or palpate) the area that’s causing you discomfort as part of your physical exam.7

Are you stressed? Pain and stress are closely tied. Research shows ongoing pain can lead to psychological stress, and conversely, psychological stress can affect the body in ways that make it hypersensitive to physical pain. So, it should come as no surprise that the more often a person experiences pain, the more likely he or she is to become anxious or depressed.1,7Therefore, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about any stress in your life — pain-related or otherwise — to help him or her get to the heart of your pain.8

Does it let up? Another thing to consider is whether your pain waxes and wanes or remains a constant unwelcome companion. Some pain may come and go at first and then become steadier over time. The frequency of the pain and the pattern in which it strikes are important to discuss with your doctor.9

Does the pain stop you from living your life? Does your pain get in the way of everyday activities like dressing, getting in and out of a car, taking a walk with your kids, sleeping, and other normal actions? The more pain interferes with your daily life, the more important it is to treat it as soon as possible.1

Does anything make the pain worse? Maybe the pain in your knee ramps up when you climb hills, or your lower back muscles tighten into a painful spasm after you lift something that weighs more than 20 pounds; all of this is valuable information for your doctor. In the weeks leading up to your appointment, try making a “pain diary” and recording the activities that trigger your pain.1,10

What other symptoms are you having? If you experience other symptoms together with the pain, it may provide additional clues as to its cause. For example, if you get nausea and vomiting with every headache, it may indicate migraines are causing your head pain.11 Weight loss or night sweats coupled with pain could indicate malignancy. And if you have a fever with pain, you could have an infection that requires treatment right away.7

Where does it fall on the pain scale? A lot of healthcare providers will use a pain scale to help assess the severity of a person’s pain. This scale usually runs from 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain at all, and 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever experienced. Think honestly about the degree of your pain, and be ready to rate it when you see your doctor.1

Is it time to see a healthcare professional?

Pain can take a lot of forms, but one thing’s for sure: nobody likes it. If your pain gets in the way of your daily activities or dampens your quality of life, it’s time to see a healthcare professional. Many people with pain can be successfully treated, especially if they understand the cause.

Treatment options include acupuncture, medication, relaxation techniques, local electrical stimulation, biofeedback, and, in some cases, surgery. A lot boils down to the dialogue you have with your healthcare provider — the more clearly you describe your pain, the more likely you are to become pain-free.4


  1. Haefeli M, Elfering A. Pain assessment. European Spine Journal. 2006;15(Suppl 1):S17-S24. doi:10.1007/s00586–005–1044-x.
  2. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, National Institutes of Health. How is back pain diagnosed? https://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/back_pain/back_pain_ff.asp#e.
  3. Primaris Healthcare Business Solutions. Pain: terminology and types. http://www.primaris.org/sites/default/files/resources/Pain/pain_terminology%20and%20types%20final.pdf.
  4. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Chronic-Pain-Information-Page.
  5. NIH Medline Plus. Chronic pain: symptoms, diagnosis, & treatment. https://medlineplus.gov/magazine/issues/spring11/articles/spring11pg5-6.html.
  6. Cleveland Clinic. Acute vs. chronic pain. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/acute-vs-chronic-pain.
  7. UpToDate. Evaluation of low back pain in adults. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/evaluation-of-low-back-pain-in-adults.
  8. Ahmas AH, Zakaria R. Pain in times of stress. The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences: MJMS. 2015;22(Spec Issue):52–61.
  9. American Cancer Society. Finding bone metastases. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/understanding-your-diagnosis/advanced-cancer/finding-bone-metastases.html.
  10. BreastCancer.org. Keeping a pain diary. http://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/pain/diary.
  11. Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan. Nervous system problems. http://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/nersp.

Never miss a story — subscribe to our newsletter.

Originally published at thedoctorweighsin.com on October 9, 2017.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
The Doctor Weighs In

The Doctor Weighs In

Dr. Patricia Salber and friends weigh in on leading news in health and healthcare