Talking to Your Doctors: Help Them Help You

When we aren’t feeling very good, most of us will try some over-the-counter medicine to help us get through it without having to go to a doctor. Stuffy nose? Decongestants. Headache or other pain? Pain killers. Not sleeping? Sleep aids and melatonin. Can’t stay awake? Caffeine and vitamins. We don’t always need doctors to fix a cold, but if you feel off or your body is behaving in ways it doesn’t normally, a visit to the doctor is exactly what you need.

Learn How Your Body Works

Going is the easy part. Communicating can be a lot harder. I went through four years of absolute hell with doctors visits, tests, and trips to the ER before I really learned how to talk to my doctors. I had a million seemingly unrelated problems, some that I didn’t even realize were real problems. Four years went by that I didn’t really pay close attention to my body and didn’t communicate with my doctors the way I should have.

Not all problems take as long to figure out; some, like a sinus infection that doesn’t give you a stuffy nose (been there, done that) a doctor can diagnose in a heartbeat if you can identify and explain what you are feeling (who knew a sinus infection could cause an earache? not me, that’s for sure). It’s not easy to know what’s going on in your body. Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on what hurts or feels funny. You have to really pay attention. A lot of times this made me feel like a hypochondriac when I’d notice little things, like having cuts or sores in my mouth that I didn’t remember getting, but I’m glad that I did notice. These are things that have helped me know my body better and become comfortable with the way it works, and ultimately have helped me communicate with my doctor about the big and little problems:

  1. Noticing is a lot different than diagnosing — It does not make you a hypochondriac if you notice how your body functions or dysfunctions. Worrying is how our mind reminds us to take care of ourselves. Look things up if they worry you, but don’t diagnose yourself though–take your concerns to a professional.
  2. Not every journal starts with “Dear Diary, …” — About two years into my problems, I started keeping a log of how I physically felt each day and scaled the severity of different symptoms. I kept track of previous doctor’s appointments and what my doctors had to say during them. Seeing written testament to patterns can help you validate your fears and will give your doctor real data to diagnose from.
  3. Everyone’s body is different, not just in shape but in function. — This is not said enough. Stop comparing your health to someone else’s. Become comfortable with the way your body works and ignore what how you think it should work.
  4. Be prepared for the worst, and for the best. — This goes hand-in-hand with #3. Something that may seem unusual to you may be a perfectly healthy body function. Maybe it’s not the way a body typically works, but it’s the way yours works. On the other hand, if it is a problem and you can’t do a lot about it, accept that this is just something that you will need to be aware of in the future and try to control.
  5. Oversharing is a good thing. — If you take nothing else from this piece, take this: tell your doctor everything. Probably the pain in your foot is not related to your stuffy nose, but there are a lot of weird diseases out there that have strange manifestations; at the very least, you may be able to solve two problems with one doctors visit. It wasn’t until I broke down and just explained every seemingly insignificant problem to a doctor that I finally got answers that made sense.


When you hear hoofbeats, you think horses, not zebras. When doctors only hear the basics, they will assume the most basic answer. After four years, I was so over the shame of telling my story, so very done with doctors only seeing one part of the picture, and I found a rheumatologist whom I told in detail about the various ups and downs of my life up until that point. I hadn’t told all of this to any single doctor before–just the bits and pieces that I thought might be related. His reaction is one I will never forget: he blinked at me a few times, then a few more, and told me that I might be a zebra. Those were his words: “You might be a zebra. Let me go look at my books.” He put the pieces together and figured out that I have behcet’s disease, an immune system disorder similar to lupus (insert joke about Gregory House), and has helped me take care of my body in ways I didn’t know it needed caring.

I am a zebra. And I never, in a million years, would have been able to figure that out if I hadn’t gotten past the fear, the shame, and the not-knowing andfinally communicated fully with my problems to my doctor. I know that this is an extreme case, that most of the time the hoofbeats are horses, but you can’t know for certain unless you turn around and look. Start taking note of your body so you can help your doctor help you.


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