When to Talk to Your Doctor About Pain

If you’ve experienced pain from an injury, surgery or other health condition, you know the debilitating effect it can have on your physical and mental health. Pain can be disruptive to your day-to-day activities, social life and even your sleep. 

But how long should you wait for pain to go away on its own before getting help? If your pain is interfering with your quality of life, it may be time to talk with your healthcare provider, says Ryan Szepiela, MD, a board-certified physical medicine, rehabilitation and sports medicine physician at ProMedica. 

Dr. Szepiela sees patients with pain in the muscles, joints, back, spine and nerves. No matter what type of pain you may be experiencing, he says it’s never too soon to speak up about being sore. 

“Pain is a natural response to the body telling you something is wrong,” he says. If you’re experiencing pain, don’t hesitate to reach out and get an opinion.”  

Identifying the Source of Pain

“The body is very complex. Sometimes pain overlaps and it’s not apparent what’s causing it,” says Dr. Szepiela. “Trying to find the pain generator is often the biggest battle.” 

There are two primary types of pain: acute pain and chronic pain. Identifying which type of pain you’re in can help you get on a faster path to relief. 

  • Acute pain is pain or injury that lasts less than six months. A doctor can typically identify the cause of acute pain, such as recent surgery, a pulled muscle, a cut or burn or a broken bone. You can treat acute pain with a combination of home remedies, medications, injections or physical therapy.  
  • Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than six months. The cause of this type of ongoing pain can be more challenging to identify and treat since it isn’t always related to an injury. Chronic pain includes conditions like headaches, back pain, arthritis pain or nerve pain.   

Knowing When to Seek Care

If your pain is overwhelming, reach out to your doctor or seek care right away. And watch for red flags that could be a sign of a more serious injury, says Dr. Szepiela. “If you have significant weakness, shooting pains, nerve pain or pain radiating to other areas, you should talk to your provider. These types of symptoms could indicate other complications or potential injuries and are important to diagnose and treat immediately so the pain doesn’t turn from acute to chronic.” 

Rate your pain on a 10-point scale, with zero indicating no pain and 10 indicating the worst possible pain. Small, minor injuries that fall within a three or four on the scale will usually get better within two weeks with the help of over-the-counter medications, ice and rest. 

If pain persists or feels like a five or above, Dr. Szepiela recommends checking in with your doctor. It’s better to identify and treat pain early to avoid other complications or long-term injuries and get you back to your regular activity.  

Talking to Your Doctor About Pain

Everyone experiences pain differently. To help your doctor pinpoint your pain, prepare in advance by: 

  • Accurately describing your pain. Pain can be difficult to express, but using descriptive words — like constant ache, radiating pain, shooting pain, burning or stabbing pain — can help your doctor better understand. Describe any swelling or impact to movement to your doctor as well. 
  • Keeping a record of your pain. Keeping a log or a journal of your pain and the intensity can also help you explain your pain. Do certain activities make it worse? Is it affecting your sleep? Has anything helped make it feel better? Helping your doctor understand what intensifies your pain can help them target the pain and its source. 

Your doctor will listen and ask questions about any potential injuries to learn more about the source of the pain, ask about your medical history, give you a physical exam and possibly request tests or scans, like an X-ray, to assess any suspected injuries or conditions. 

You may also be referred to a doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, pain management, orthopaedics or sports medicine for further evaluation. 

Finding Effective Treatment

Because pain comes in many different forms and from many causes, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for treatment. Treating and managing pain or injury often requires a combination of methods and specialists tailored to your specific needs. Some common treatments include: 

Complementary Medicine

A pain management specialist may also recommend treatment options like acupuncture, chiropractic or massage to alleviate pain.  

Medication

Dr. Szepiela recommends starting with light medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, along with ice and rest. Your doctor can also prescribe muscle relaxants or nerve medications to relieve pain. It’s recommended to try these methods first before a prescription narcotic like oxycodone or hydrocodone.  

“Narcotic medications ideally are used on a short-term basis,” says Dr. Szepiela. “We still use these medications when needed, but we want to use them in a controlled environment, appropriately and safely.”  

Supplements and natural medicines can also manage pain, but Dr. Szepiela advises reading warning labels first. “Just because something is natural or over-the-counter doesn’t mean it comes without complications. Check with your doctor before starting to use supplements or natural medicine to make sure there are no interactions with your current medications.”  

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy can help reduce pain by teaching you how to perform a movement correctly or restore movement to an area in pain.  

Psychological Support

“There are a lot of emotions associated with being in pain,” says Dr. Szepiela. “And there is a direct correlation between chronic pain and depression and anxiety. If we don’t address the emotional aspect, we’re missing a significant portion of pain management.”   

Surgery

Surgery is an option for some types of intractable pain or pain affecting the body’s functions. If you’ve gone through a wide range of treatments with no improvement and your pain affects your everyday activities, your doctor may refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon.  

If you’re experiencing pain that is affecting your daily life, talk to your primary care provider, or learn more about ProMedica’s orthopaedic services.    

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