Man in pain ready to see his doctor

When to See Your Doctor About Pain

May 22, 2023 Family Medicine Share:

While you may have heard sayings such as, “no pain, no gain,” or “pain is just fear leaving the body,” pain is actually a physiological signal that something is wrong.

While most pain is temporary and resolves on its own without medical intervention, there are certain times when it’s important to see your doctor about pain. But how do you know when it’s time to schedule that appointment?

Our guide is designed to help you understand the purpose of pain so that you can know when to go to the doctor, as well as how to better prepare for that appointment so that your doctor can get to the root cause of your pain.

What is Pain?

Pain is a signal from your nervous system that indicates that something is wrong. When you experience pain, your nerves send a message to your brain. Your brain then interprets this message and you’re able to perceive that pain.

Pain is experienced differently by different people, but it’s almost always an unpleasant sensation. What one individual interprets as mildly irritating pain, another individual may interpret as severe pain. Pain also comes in different forms, such as the dull ache of a tension headache or the burning pain of a sunburn.

Pain also serves an important physiological purpose. Regardless of its intensity, pain of any kind is a signal that something is wrong. Pain is something to notice and pay attention to because it also serves to protect your body.

For example, if you strain your hamstring during a basketball game, you’re going to experience some degree of pain. That pain is a signal that your muscle has been damaged and that you need to stop what you’re doing to avoid further injury.

While it may be tempting to mask or push through the pain, it’s important to figure out what the pain is telling you. In the case of injury, the reason for the pain is usually obvious. The reason for other types of pain may not be as clear.

Acute Pain and Chronic Pain

Acute pain is specific and temporary pain. It usually has a known cause and treatment, and the pain will improve over time. Acute pain can be as minor as the pain that results from a paper cut or from stubbing your toe. It can also be more severe, such as pain following a surgical procedure.

Most doctors consider acute pain to be any pain that lasts for less than three months. If you break your foot, you may experience acute pain for a while, but that pain should decrease in severity as the fracture heals.

Chronic pain is any pain that lasts longer than three months and doesn’t resolve or improve after treatment. Chronic pain isn’t always constant pain: pain that you experience off and on for several months is still chronic pain.

Acute pain can also become chronic. For example, a sports injury can initially cause acute pain. But if that injury doesn’t heal completely or properly, the pain from that injury can become chronic.

When to See a Doctor About Pain

Sometimes, it’s obvious when you need to see your primary care doctor (or even an urgent care doctor) about your pain. If you have an acute injury, such as a wound that needs stitches, it’s usually clear that you need to head to an urgent care clinic near you. Most people also know to see their primary care doctor for pain that’s severe enough to keep them from eating, sleeping, or working.

But what about mild or moderate pain? In many cases, pain can be irritating or frustrating, but it’s difficult to know when it’s time to get it checked out by your doctor. Here are several things to consider when deciding to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor about pain.

Duration of Pain

How long have you been in pain? You usually don’t need to see the doctor at the first hint of pain unless it’s debilitating. But if you’ve been experiencing pain for more than a couple of weeks, it’s probably time to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. If the pain comes and goes regularly for more than two weeks, you should also plan to see your doctor.

Severity of Pain

Debilitating pain should send you to the doctor immediately. Minor pain is usually easier to ignore; the more severe the pain, the sooner you should go see a doctor. You should also plan to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor if your pain is getting progressively worse.

Impact of Pain

You don’t need to be bedridden for pain to impact your life. If the pain you’re experiencing interferes with your ability to live your life, you need to schedule an appointment with your doctor. You should also consider whether pain is impacting your quality of life. You may be able to sleep and go to work, but if the pain is making you irritable or causing you to withdraw from time with friends and family, you should also talk to your doctor.

Pain with Other Symptoms

Pain doesn’t always arrive on its own. If you’re experiencing other symptoms alongside your pain such as fever, dizziness, or nausea, don’t wait to see your doctor.

Because pain is subjective, it’s hard to have firm rules for when someone should or shouldn’t see their primary care doctor about pain. If you’re not sure if you should see your doctor about pain, give your doctor a call or send an email through your patient portal. They can offer specific guidance based on your medical history and your specific situation.

Never be embarrassed by your pain, and it isn’t a sign of weakness to see your doctor. Your primary care doctor can help you get to the root of what’s causing your pain and help you address it rather than simply mask it.

How to Talk to Your Doctor About Pain

When you schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor to talk about pain, it’s important to describe it thoroughly so that they can give you targeted, specific help. Everyone experiences pain differently, so the more information you can provide, the better treatment you can receive.

Some patients find it helpful to keep a journal or make notes about their pain before their appointment. To better describe your pain, consider:

  • Location: It’s important to identify the exact place on your body where you’re experiencing pain. Is there one specific location, or does the pain radiate? Has the pain spread or moved? Do you have pain in more than one location at the same time, such as your lower back and your neck?
  • Sensation: People experience pain through a variety of sensations. Do your best to describe the type of pain you’re experiencing. Some helpful describing words for pain may include burning, stabbing, aching, and tingling. Note if the pain feels differently at different times of the day or after certain activities.
  • Onset: Try to remember what you were doing when the pain began. Did you injure yourself? Did you move your body in a certain way, or did it seem to appear out of nowhere with no apparent cause? If your pain isn’t constant, you can also identify certain triggers for your pain, such as moving from sitting to standing, or a time of day when the pain seems to be worse.
  • Frequency: How often do you experience pain? Some people experience constant pain, all day every day. Others may experience pain daily, but only at certain times. Other types of pain may be intermittent, such as severe pain associated with your menstrual cycle or pain that only occurs for the two days after soccer practice.
  • Duration: Do your best to identify exactly how long you’ve been experiencing pain, but it’s okay if you can’t remember the exact day the pain began. If your pain is intermittent, describe how frequently you experience periods of pain and how long those periods tend to last.
  • Changes: Consider how the pain may have changed since you began experiencing it. Has it changed in severity? Has the pain gotten progressively worse, or did it seem to get better for a little while before getting worse again? Has the sensation or type of pain changed? For example, what may have started as a dull aching sensation may have progressed to a sharp, stabbing pain.
  • Impact: Be as specific as possible to describe the impact the pain is having on your daily life. Some examples may include, “Every time I walk my dog, I have to ice my ankle,” or “I avoid going to worship at church now, because being in a loud room for longer than a few minutes triggers a severe headache.”
  • Previous Interventions: Let your doctor know any treatments you’ve tried and how they’ve worked. RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) is a common treatment for injuries. Are you taking any over-the-counter or prescription medications for pain? Note the dose and the frequency. Have you seen other doctors for the pain? For example, you may have gone to an urgent care doctor for an injury but the pain is still lingering. Also note if you’ve tried massage, exercise, or other types of physical therapy.
  • Medical History: Your primary care doctor will already have a good idea of your personal and family medical history. But if you’re seeing a new doctor or if there are any changes, make sure to update your doctor with this new information.

When you see your primary care doctor for pain, they’re going to work to find the root cause of your pain rather than mask it with pain medications. While your doctor may use pain medication such as injectable NSAIDs or steroids, these medications will usually only be one part of your treatment plan. Doctors at MedHelp clinics do not prescribe opioid pain relievers to treat patients.

When is Pain an Emergency?

Sometimes, pain is a true medical emergency. Please visit the nearest emergency room or call 911 if your pain is sudden and debilitating with no apparent cause. You should also go to the ER if the pain is accompanied by other serious symptoms such as:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Difficulty walking, talking, or staying awake
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Neurological symptoms such as slurred speech or numbness on one side of your body
  • Vomiting with severe pain

Remember that pain is an important physiological signal. When you’re experiencing pain, pay attention! And if you’ve been experiencing pain for a while or you have concerns about your pain, don’t hesitate to reach out to your primary care doctor. While your pain may not be an emergency, it is indicating that something is wrong. Your primary care doctor can help you get the care and treatment you need.

And if you don’t have a primary care doctor, we can help. MedHelp urgent care doctors can provide primary care services to walk-in patients as needed. And if you’d like to establish care with a primary care doctor in Birmingham, our primary care doctors are accepting new patients at all five MedHelp clinics.

Don't Ignore Your Pain

Pain is a signal from your body! While the pain will often go away on its own, lingering pain may require attention from your primary care doctor.