Tips for talking about physical and emotional health with a provider
An annual wellness visit may be a great way to keep your provider informed about your health. Primary care providers (PCP) pay close attention to basics such as blood pressure and screenings because they’re a window into your overall well-being.
But there’s another important part to this yearly visit: talking to your PCP about how you’re feeling — physically, emotionally and mentally. Discussing all 3 things helps the provider get a better picture of your overall health and helps them provide you with the right treatment, says Mary Valvano, M.D., chief medical officer at BetterNow Medicine, a lifestyle medicine and pain management practice in Amherst, New Hampshire.
Sometimes it can be tough knowing exactly what to say to your PCP, though, or how to describe symptoms that come and go. These tips may help make the conversation easier. Plus, they may also help the PCP better understand how your symptoms affect your daily life.
Try to be detailed about the symptoms you're describing
The more detail you can provide, the better, says Dr. Valvano. That goes for physical and emotional symptoms. Try to include the following:
- The location of your symptoms. For example, lower back pain, or an ache in your right knee.
- How long the symptoms or feelings last. Are you sad every day or just once in a while? Does your back hurt all the time or only when you exercise?
- Intensity. Use a scale of 1 to 10 to tell your provider how bad the feeling or pain is. “It’s important for me to know that a headache is a 10 on the pain scale, as opposed to a 2,” says Michael Hochman, M.D., a physician in Los Angeles. “That way, I have a better idea of which tests to order and which questions to ask.”
Try to use specific language
Describe the sensations or emotions you feel with specific words, like sharp, dull, throbbing or burning, suggests Dr. Valvano. Other words that may help the provider understand more clearly:
One of the most important visits you'll have all year
Mention any triggers or patterns
Sometimes symptoms pop up or get worse during certain situations or activities. For example, some people only get headaches when it rains. It’s important to share those patterns with the provider, advises Dr. Valvano.
The same is true for emotions. If something causes so much stress that it’s tough to calm down, that’s important information to share with your PCP so they can help to provide stress-management tips.1
Discuss lifestyle factors
Many things affect overall health. That includes how you go about your daily life. For example, loneliness and feeling isolated can raise the risk of heart disease and depression.2 Not getting enough exercise or sleep can make chronic pain worse — and so can stress and smoking.3
Your PCP may ask about these lifestyle factors. If not, bring it up. Ask the PCP for tips on how to get more exercise during the day. Or how to stop smoking or feel less lonely. All these play into your health — and quality of life.
Focus on key concerns
It can be tempting to blurt out every single thing on your mind, but Dr. Hochman says it’s more helpful to a provider if you rank your symptoms according to the ones that worry you most. Otherwise, he adds, “it’s hard for me as the doctor to know what’s important to you as the patient.”
So, for example, if you’ve been feeling so down that you’ve lost your appetite, or if the pain in your back is so bad that you can no longer walk in the park or play with your grandkids, let the PCP know that. Putting symptoms in order and with enough detail helps streamline the discussion so you can come away with a treatment.
Describe how your symptoms affect your daily life
Everyone feels tired. But talking about what makes you tired may give providers clues into what’s causing the fatigue, says Dr. Hochman. “If suddenly you are exhausted walking upstairs, that’s very different from feeling so tired you fall asleep in a chair,” he explains. “The first suggests an underlying heart or lung issue, while the second could indicate a condition like sleep apnea.”
The same is true of other symptoms or emotions. “Explain how symptoms you may be experiencing are affecting your ability to carry out regular activities — and any changes you have noticed,” says Dr. Valvano.
Don’t shy away from sharing personal information
It’s fine to bring up a current stressful situation, such as caregiving, even if you aren’t sure exactly how it relates to your symptoms. This is helpful information, because it may help the provider understand what’s affecting your sleep or mood.
Also let the provider know about any new conditions that may have come up during the year. Bring a list of the medications you take, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, supplements and vitamins. All these factors may affect your overall health, both physical and emotional.3
Bring a family member or friend to the visit
Sometimes 2 heads are better than 1. A partner, caregiver or family member may be able to help put health experiences into words. They may also let the provider know about any changes they’ve noticed, or bring up issues that you may have missed.3
It can be hard to talk about your body and moods. But you may feel relieved after you do. Better yet, it may help your provider get you the treatment you need to feel healthier and happier.