Not too long ago, I injured my knee. I was limping and I knew I needed to go see a doctor.
The doctor peppered me with questions. When did my knee hurt most? Was the pain worse going up or down stairs? Had my kneecap always clicked when I bent my knee, or was that new? Did my knee ever give way on me? And on and on. I was surprised by how specific the questions were and how few details I remembered.
Why do our answers matter?
Most doctors will tell you that the patient interview is the most important part of the diagnostic process. A doctor making a diagnosis is like a detective solving a mystery, and the patient is the person who can provide the clues.
A physical exam and imaging can yield some answers, but your firsthand knowledge of when symptoms occur, what they feel like, how long they last, and how they effect your life is essential information.
A lot of people are uncomfortable with this detective/mystery analogy. They think good doctors should be all-knowing. The truth is, though, that making an accurate diagnosis is not always clear-cut. Many medical conditions have similar symptoms, and seemingly subtle differences can help a doctor distinguish between one diagnosis and another.
Even after an accurate diagnosis is made, tracking symptoms can be helpful. A doctor can use your feedback to determine whether a treatment plan is working or if adjustments should be made. It can also help your doctor to understand how other factors are interacting with your condition, such as chronic pain, depression, fatigue, and insomnia.
You can help your doctor by tracking your symptoms. The best way to create an accurate record of symptoms is to record them at least once a day.
- Keep a little notebook in your car, purse, or on your nightstand and write down your symptoms each day. Bring the notebook to your next doctor appointment.
- Do you have a calendar hanging somewhere in your house? Write your symptoms directly onto it (just don't forget to bring it to your doctor appointment).
- Make notations in your smart phone or tablet. Consider using an app, like TRACK + REACT from the Arthritis Foundation (find it on Google Play or the iTunes store) or Symple Symptom Tracker (on iTunes.) Keep in mind that if your doctor's office doesn't have Wi-Fi, you may need to download or print out information in advance of an appointment. See 3 Free Apps for Tracking Life with Arthritis
Write down the date and time the symptoms appeared as well what preceded the pain. For example, did you just wake up or walk the dog? Also, what alleviated the pain? Did you need to take medication?
Tracking symptoms may help you and your doctor see patterns that would otherwise go unnoticed.