Talking to Your Doctor: How to Find the Right Words to Describe Your Symptoms

Dr. Gary McClain
Written by
Dr. Gary McClain Mental Health

If talking to your doctor leaves you overwhelmed, you are not alone.

Will made an appointment to talk with his doctor about symptoms he had been feeling over the last couple of weeks.  As usual, his doctor started the conversation with a question:  “What brings you in today?”  

“I’m just not feeling it lately,” Will answered.

“Not feeling what?” his doctor asked.

“Not feeling all that well.”  

When his doctor went on to ask Will to describe any symptoms he was experiencing, Will wasn’t sure how to answer.  He hadn’t really thought about exactly how he was feeling.  He just knew he wasn’t feeling like he normally feels.  

Will’s doctor went through a list of possible symptoms with him, based on the medications he is taking. Most of them didn’t seem at all close to how he was feeling.  Because he couldn’t describe to his doctor what his symptoms were, the conversation provided him with some ideas about what to watch out for in the days ahead.  His doctor had also suggested a couple of tests that Will may need to undergo.  

At one point, his doctor had shown will a list of emojis and asked him to point to the one that most illustrated his pain level.  That helped a little, but Will wasn’t sure how closely any of them matched his pain experience that day.  

Will still left his doctor’s office feeling frustrated about how their conversation had gone.  He felt that by not being able to come up with the right words to describe how he was feeling, he hadn’t been able to help his doctor to help him.  As a result, the appointment hadn’t been a good use of his time or the doctor’s time.  And he still wasn’t feeling like himself.  

“What do I need to do?” he wondered.  “Walk around with some kind of symptom checklist?”  

Have you ever felt like Will?  Kind of knowing you feel but able to come up with the right words?  

Talking to your doctor and describing your symptoms doesn’t require that you have a grasp of medical terminology.  There are different ways to describe symptoms.  You can use a direct approach or an indirect approach.  

7 Tips for Talking To Your Doctor About Your Symptoms

  1. Focus on how your life is being affected.  Think of your symptoms in terms of what your life was like before they appeared.  What you were able to do or how easily you were able to do it.  And then, considering what life was like when you felt better, identify what has changed.

    Are you having difficulty climbing the stairs?  Having trouble completing the work at your job?  Getting annoyed easily with other people?  Providing examples related to day-to-day functioning can help to give your doctor a clearer picture.  

  2. Use a metaphor.  Visualize your symptoms in terms of how they affect the way you function day-to-day and then describe them in a more symbolic way through a metaphor.  Examples might include “walking up a hill carrying a 20-pound weight in each hand” or “trying to go to sleep with a marching band in my head.”  Some of us are better with metaphors than others, but if you come up with one, give it a try with your doctor.  It may not be exact enough for your doctor, but it’s a way to give him/her a sense of the impact of your symptoms.  

  3. Make a list of words.  Just come up with a list of words that describe your symptoms.  Use descriptive words, also referred to as adjectives, like achy, cloudy, or tingling.  It might help to do some brainstorming with yourself on a sheet of paper.  Create a list off the top of your head, without evaluating the words as you go along.  Don’t worry about being exact.  Then, go through the list and circle any words that you think might come closest to how your symptom feels to you.  

  4. Include the specifics.  When, where, how.  While physicians need to know what your symptoms are, they also need related details.  These details include:
    – the time of day
    – what you were doing at the time
    – any and all medications you were taking
    – what you might have done to help yourself
    – any other details related to the symptoms that come to mind 

    The more clearly you can create a picture of what your life is like with these symptoms, the better able your doctor will be to make a determination.  

  5. Identify any concerns that the symptoms raise for you.  Worried about whether your medication is working?  That your condition may be progressing?  Experiencing what you think may be breakthrough pain?  That your self-care plan may need adjusting?  Let your doctor know about that too, so that they can either provide reassurance or take additional action.  

  6. Bring brief notes.  As you know, physicians have less and less time to spend with their patients.  So if you can come prepared with a description of your symptoms – words, examples, metaphors – you will get to the point that much quicker and, in turn, your doctor will have more time to discuss solutions. 

    Start the discussion by describing your symptoms as well as any related details you think the doctor needs to know.  Have your notes ready to help you respond to any additional questions he/she may have.  

  7. Keep a journal.  You might find it easiest to keep track of symptoms if you keep a healthcare journal.  You don’t have to write in it any day, and you can maintain it in any format that works for you.  Lists, paragraphs, bullet points.  Write down anything related to your symptoms, including pain and how your pain is impacting your life.  Review it before your next appointment or other times when you are reaching out to your doctor.  


You and your symptoms are your pain experience.  Do your part to come prepared to your doctor’s appointment with a clear and concise description of your symptoms, including pain, from the perspective of how you are feeling and how your daily life is being impacted.  Talking to your doctor with clearer communication means better teamwork!

Dr. Gary McClain
Written by
Dr. Gary McClain Mental Health

Dr. Gary McClain, PhD, is a psychotherapist, patient advocate, and author, specializing in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses, as well as their families and professional caregivers. He works with them to understand and cope with their emotions, to learn about their lifestyle and treatment options, to maintain compliance with medical regimens, to communicate effectively with the medical establishment, to communicate better with other family members, and to listen to their own inner voice as they make decisions about the future. He writes articles for healthcare publications and websites, facilitates discussions in social health communities, and conducts workshops on living with chronic conditions, Chronic Communication. Visit his blog for more on mental health at www.JustGotDiagnosed.com Connect with him on twitter @drgaryjgd 

This article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek medical advice from your physician or health provider for your specific needs.