How Doctors Diagnose Chronic Pain

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Male doctor with male patient with hand on shoulder

Pain presents a special challenge for doctors. 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 doctor searches for the root cause of your aches, he or she may:

  • Ask about your pain history
  • Talk about your other health problems
  • Conduct a physical exam
  • Use electrodiagnostic procedures
  • Take images
  • Assess you for depression

Your Pain History

Your doctor will want to know everything about your pain, including when it hurts, how much it hurts, and whether the feelings are stabbing or aching. He or she will also want to know what medications or other treatments you’ve tried, and whether these measures have helped.

One helpful tool: Rate your pain on a scale of from 1 to 10, where 1 means you feel no pain and 10 marks the most severe pain you can imagine. In the weeks leading up to your doctor visit, keep a pain diary. Note these details so you can give your doctor a clear picture.

Sometimes this information can point to a diagnosis by itself. For instance, if you’re an author or musician and have aches in your hand that get worse when you’re working, your doctor may suspect you have writer’s cramp or carpal tunnel syndrome.

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 doctor will look at your medical record and ask you questions about other medical issues, too. He or she may also ask about your family history, specifically if any other family members suffer or have suffered from chronic pain symptoms.

Your Physical Exam

Your doctor will check your body for signs of pain that are visible or noticeable by touch. Pain from arthritis, for instance, often causes warmth or redness in your joints.

Electrodiagnostic Procedures

These types of tests tell your physician which nerves and muscles your pain affects. Electrodes, or thin needles, are placed on or in your body. With these tools, your doctor 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.

Imaging Tests

X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging and similar technologies give your doctor 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.

Depression Assessment

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

Making the Diagnosis

Diagnosing chronic pain and its cause requires a partnership with your doctor. Answer the doctor’s questions as completely as possible, and make sure the doctor hears what you are saying. You also can ask questions and offer extra information you feel may be important to your condition. Together with your doctor, you can work towards a treatment plan to ease your pain. For more insight, read Talking to Your Doctor About Chronic Pain Treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jul 30
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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