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Understanding Pain: A 6-Step Guide To Being Informed Before Visiting Your Doctor




Person writing a pain journal

When suffering from ‘invisible pain’ and conditions such as fibromyalgia, understanding and learning how to describe pain to your doctor can be difficult. It’s important that you know as much about your pain as possible before you discuss it with your GP, as this prevents repeat appointments and misdiagnoses. Tracking when the pain occurs, identifying triggers and learning how to describe how the pain feels can lead to a faster diagnosis — but where do you begin? 
Step 1: Understanding the Type of Pain 
It goes without saying, that pain is an unpleasant sensation which is hard to ignore. It can be felt in a range of ways and be caused by a variety of factors. Because of the broad definition of pain, it’s important that you understand as much as possible about your own pain to help you describe it to others.
Pain can be split into two main categories, which are acute and chronic. Acute pain is short term and is often felt as a severe or sudden pain that eases with time. Opposite to this is chronic pain, which is persistent and can last for months (or longer) — this is a recognised condition.
An alternative way to understand pain is to determine the source. Your pain will typically fall under one of the following categories
  • Neuropathic pain (nerve-injury)
  • Radicular pain (pain travels down the path of the nerve)
  • Somatic pain (caused by stimulation of pain receptors on the surface of the body or in musculoskeletal tissues)
  • Myofascial pain (a type of somatic pain, associated with muscle pain)
  • Visceral pain (relating to the internal organs)
By following the remaining steps below, you should be able to categorise your pain more accurately, better understand the cause, and find the most suitable treatment - with the help of your GP. 
Step 2: Identifying Triggers 
It may be surprising to learn about the many triggers of pain, as your lifestyle and/or environment can cause pain without you even realising. Identifying triggers can help you avoid them in the future and learn how to deal with them. You might find that your pain is associated with the following: 
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Disrupted sleep patterns 
  • Temperature change
  • Inflammatory food 
Step 3: Determining Pain Intensity   
By measuring and recording the intensity of your pain, you will be able to recognise when it gets worse and the potential triggers of this. A basic pain level chart is usually a scale of 1 to 10 that ranges from no pain, to moderate pain, to the worst possible pain. You can find a detailed explanation of each stage of the scale here
Step 4: Tracking Your Pain
The fourth step in understanding pain is to recognise when it’s happening, as this can help you monitor your triggers and determine if certain factors, such as stress or environmental changes, make the pain better or worse. 
Is there a definitively correct way to track your pain? Well in short, it’s whatever works the best for you. There are apps out there, such as CatchMyPain which allows you to draw the location and intensity of your pain on a model, track happiness and fatigue, while also providing other useful features. Or, you might decide to create your own diary in a notepad. For this idea, just remember to make note of the following points: 
  • The date and time you feel the pain
  • How long it lasted
  • Location of the pain 
  • Intensity of pain 
  • Any potential triggers 
  • Any treatment you used 
Step 5: Can You Treat it at Home?
After you’ve determined the cause and triggers of your pain the best you can, you may find there are some ways to relieve it with simple techniques and therapies at home. Of course, if pain persists, it is always best to seek medical advice. 
To give an example for the above; if it’s a painful injury that you’ve suffered recently, try the RICE method as soon as you can. This stands for Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate - and this technique works to keep swelling down. 
Over-the-counter painkillers are typically non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen. They work well to treat muscle pain and inflammatory injuries such as sprains. Always read and follow the instructions carefully before self-medicating, however. 
Treatments and medications that have few serious side-effects include gels, creams and sprays that are available from supermarkets and the pharmacy. These work by relieving the pain topically and are often used to treat muscle, tendon and joint pain as they can be applied right at the site of the pain and/or injury. 
Step 6: Knowing What to Say  
Before you visit your doctor, it’s a good idea to prepare what you want to say. This way, you don’t forget to mention a specific symptom and reduce the risk of a misdiagnosis. It's all too easy to come out of a rushed consultation and realise you forgot to mention an important point.
Show your doctor your pain tracker and have bullet points prepared that you can discuss — this could be the triggers that you’ve identified and any treatments that you’ve tried at home.

​Getting to know your pain is the first step in treating it. Following this 6-step guide will help you find the best treatment that works most effectively for you and your needs.

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