One of the most maddening things you could ever hear as a patient is, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, maybe it’s all in your head.” Putting aside the obvious (and really tired) joke that, yes, it IS in my head, there is nothing funny about that statement.
When you are struggling with pain and you finally do ask for help, the last thing you want to hear is that the person who is supposed to help you doesn’t even believe your pain is real. In this post I’ll give you six tips to help you navigate doctors when they are skeptical of your pain.
So what should you do, if you think your doctor doesn’t believe your pain, or thinks it is “all in your head”?
1. Have you told your entire story? Have you brought medical records, imaging, or any journals/symptom lists/pain level spreadsheets?
Doctors (especially in the emergency room, where they are trained to look for worst case scenarios and go down a checklist in their heads for life threatening issues) sometimes hear what they want to hear, instead of what you are actually saying. This happens to ALL humans, not just doctors.
However, it’s important that you are able to tell the entire story about your pain. When did it start? What does it feel like? Do any activities make it worse? What makes it better? If telling the story is difficult for you, write it down. If the doctor interrupts you as you are telling it, ask him or her nicely if you could continue before any questions, because it is important that you let them know everything that is going on with you.
Try to keep your story succinct – the doctor doesn’t need to hear about unrelated events or conversations.
If you have records from previous doctors, imaging (both the imaging itself and any reports from the radiologist), tests, or journals you have kept, definitely give them to the doctor to review. Some patients even send their records, journals, and questions ahead of time if the doctor is open to it.
2. Consider what type of doctor you are seeing and what his or her specialty is.
A general practitioner may not know very much about jaw pain. Always consider the source of any advice or opinion (medical professional or not)!
3. Ask for reasons behind the opinion or diagnosis.
If a doctor tells you he/she believes the pain is in your head, ask why he thinks that. Sometimes at this point, the doctor will admit that they just aren’t sure how to help you. Ask for a referral. If they don’t know who to send you to, ask them if they have a colleague who might know. If he or she doesn’t have a colleague that knows, get on the internet and look for one right there with the doctor.
4. Remember that your doctor works for you. YOU are the world’s foremost expert on your own body.
It’s more than okay to look for a doctor who listens, helps you feel empowered, and treats your pain seriously. They are out there, and you deserve to find them.
I have fired several doctors that I believed did not have my best interests at heart. It was worth it to find the doctors who work with me to improve my life.
5. Last resort: If, for some reason, you absolutely have to keep seeing the doctor who thinks it’s all in your head (maybe you have an HMO and can not see another doctor without a referral), ask for a referral to a psychologist for an evaluation.
I have done this in circumstances where I felt having a psychologists evaluation would help the doctor treat my pain seriously. For example, when I moved to a big city and was seen in a large, busy practice, I knew I probably wouldn’t get a lot of time with the doctor to tell my story, and they would probably make a lot of decisions about me without even talking to me (they had a copy of my records). I thought the psychologist’s evaluation of my pain and the way the pain impacted my life would be helpful for them to see the entire picture. I was right – and they appreciated my willingness to do whatever it took to get the best care possible.
6. Last but not least…. this is probably the most important question of them all….
How do YOU communicate your pain? Does your body language and tone of voice convey the importance of your visit?
Only by believing in your own pain and knowing that you deserve to feel better can you effectively explain it and communicate its importance to others.
I realize that this can be difficult – for some people, just being in a doctor’s office gives them heart palpitations. If you need to, practice what you are going to say before your appointment. Bring someone with you who can explain what they see on a day to day basis.
Your doctor should be a partner in your health, not someone you fight with or against. If your doctor is rude, trivializes your concerns, or tries to make you feel bad for asking for help, FIRE HIM and find a new doctor.