When doctors don’t believe your pain


One of the most infuriating things you could ever hear as a pretty beaten up injured worker in PAIN is, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, maybe it’s all in your head…maybe it’s the way you react to pain…” or something alone the lines.

Today I am in really bad pain, writes a severly injured worker. The kind of pain that almost borders on panic…if this gets even a tad bit worse I might just go to the emergency department.

My first reaction was to go to my medicine bin (yes, it’s a bin) and dig through to see if I had any left over pain medications from previous hospital stays. I usually have stuff left over because I never take my pain meds unless I REALLY need them. The only thing I came up with was tramadol…I guess that has to do. I take that and get my heating pad and a cup of warm tea and lay in agony trying not to throw up debating, do I call my doctor?

The next thought that always runs through my mind is will he believe me? That’s not a fear anyone should have. But a fear I have never gotten over after doctors for many years would suggest that it was “all in my head”.

I am trying to make a long story as short as possible but there is so much that goes into why I feel this way. Basically from the time I had my back fused 3 years ago  I was told it was all in my head. Or some other variation of that.

To them I had a spinal fusion, my pain was gone.. I should be fine  now.

In doctors defense I know they can’t really do anything if they have nothing to go on. And I know sometimes our bodies are funny and it’s not easy to find the problem. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. I feel like sometimes it’s black and white to a doctor. If they can’t see it then it’s not there. And if you are repeatedly showing up claiming you are having certain problems yet they can’t find a cause they start to doubt your credibilty.

When doctors don’t believe your pain

pain-is-in-your-headWhen you are suffering with pain and you ask for help, the last thing you want to hear is that your doctor who is supposed to help you doesn’t even believe your pain is real.

So what can you do, if you think your doctor doesn’t believe your pain, and believes it is “all in your head”?

From our own injured experiences we have created a list of things you could consider doing to make your doctor believe your pain is damn real – but please feel free to add more suggestions:

  • Tell your (or the) doctor your whole story, chronologically. Bring along your relevant medical records, including imaging, and even your own journal, in particular your daily pain level score

Many doctors, and especially busy ones such as those in the emergency departments sometimes hear what they want to hear, instead of what you are actually saying. So it’s important that you’re able to tell them the whole story about your pain, when it started, what it feels like, what makes it worse, what brings (some) relief. If the doctor interrupts you politely asks you continue to tell your story so they get the picture. However try to keep your story short and succinct, don’t go on about unrelated events.

  • Consider the specialty of the doctor you are seeing

A general practitioner may not know very much about a certain type of pain (i.e. chronic pain or nerve pain). Consider consulting with a pain specialist and a specialist in the field of your injury (i.e. a neurosurgeon for a back injury, an upper limb surgeon for a shoulder injury)

  • Always ask for the doctor’s reason(s) behind his/her opinion (that your pain is in your head/psychological/non-organic)

If a doctor tells you they believes your (severe) pain is in your head, ask why s/he thinks that. In doing so, they may just admit they simply don’t know how to help you. Ask for a referral (i.e. to a pain specialist).

  • Always remember that YOU are the expert on your own body

If you are in (severe) pain, then something is bound to be wrong in your body. Whether or not you have an ‘oversensitiveness’ to pain is irrelevant, as it is also a malfunctioning (of the nervous system), and for which a pain specialist can help you (i.e. CRPS/RSD). It is not OK to have your pain (and you) dismissed by some doctor who, indeed, does not have your best interests at heart. Or by one that has a too big ego and believes you are a problem (for example a surgeon – typical!). Find another one who will listen and who will help you. After all, the doctor works for YOU.

  •  If, for some reason, you absolutely have to keep seeing the doctor who thinks it’s all in your head (as is often the case when on workcover, sadly), ask for a referral to a psychiatrist (or a psychologist) for an evaluation.

The psych will assess you (and your pain) and write to that doctor, helping set things straight! False perceptions about ‘exaggerating’, ‘malingering’ or even ‘faking’ you pain, or alleging that it’s all ‘in your head’ by that doctor will quickly disappear… after all that doctor is not a psychiatrist or psychologist, but a GP or a surgeon or whatever. Some of us here have done it, really!

  • The way in which you communicate your pain is also very important!

For example, does your body language and tone of voice convey the importance of your visit? And of your pain? Only by believing in your own pain and knowing that you need help can you effectively explain it and communicate its importance to a doctor. If you need to, practice what you are going to say before your appointment. It can also be very helpful to bring someone (close) with you who can explain what they see on a day to day basis (i.e. sleepless nights, crankiness, going quiet, not seeking medical or other attention, not doing anything outside restrictions etc).

If your doctor is rude, trivialises or dismisses your concerns, or tries to make you feel bad for asking for help, try the above tips, or else FIRE HIM if you can and find a new doctor who will listen.

Have you ever had a doctor who didn’t believe your pain? What did you do about it?

5 Responses to “When doctors don’t believe your pain”

  1. “When doctors don’t believe your pain”… it can lead to suicide

    I just saw the below article in today’s UK newspaper which shows that there can be extreme consequences when people do not feel that their pain is validated.

    Firefighter left paralysed in motorbike crash battled 16 years of constant pain but killed himself when doctors told him there was ‘nothing wrong with him’

  2. It’s not that simple as ‘taking your pain meds’. A friend of mine who is seriously injured (WPI in the 40’s) and who has undergone about 10 major surgeries to the same body part, after each surgery failed, was recently told by his narcissistic surgeon (who has a huge ego) that his current severe pain is in “his head”. The problem with that is that this injured worker has had 10 or 11 failed surgeries and each time, when he suffered severe pain, he was right…and something had torn real bad. So, he now has severe pain again after surgery number 10 or 11 but is told that “he is the problem”, that “it is the way he reacts to pain” (cos, my goodness the surgeon’s god-like skills surely can’t possibly have anything to do with it) . What do you do in such circumstance? You’re stuck with the mega-ego surgeon, who simply does not believe you, but who also refuses to undertake any form of imaging or tests!? (Probably to hide his ‘work’/complications). Well, this poor sod actually went to his GP and asked for a referral back to his psychiatrist. His psychiatrist actually listened to him, assessed him and assured him that he could not see any sign of ‘making up pain’ and in fact wrote a stern letter to the surgeon…
    It is very sad to hear from many injured workers in similar situations and we wonder why this is happening. Is it because those docs are tired of looking after injured workers? because of not being paid properly? Endless report writing? The high level of ‘poor outcomes’ in workcover victims? The influence of workcover insurers? Or pure bad luck. To add to the problem, no other surgeon wants to touch such injured worker, always referring them back to their surgeon…

    Workcovervictim3 June 3, 2014 at 10:32 am
  3. You should take your pain medication. Your body does NOT build up an intolerence to pain, living with pain makes it worse.
    That is from a pain management clinic.
    I hate pills, but try to take them BEFORE the pain gets too much. My pain levels stay low when I take the pills 3 times a day, unless I overdo something.
    I have had a surgeon say he cannot find a cause for knee pain, but I have Chondrial something or another and is a painful condition, eventually it may need surgery but not at this point in time, then I had a MVA… more pain… and it hasn’t “gone away”, it is worse, and probably so because I stopped taking pills and tried to “toughen up”.
    So take the pills, doesn’t have to the opiates etc, there are other options. I’d like a local every few days, at the top of my spine… would be great to not feel pain for a day or two… memories 🙂

    • Pain Management is very important, I hate meds but have learnt that if you have to do something or go somewhere take meds before hand do not wait for it to get out of hand. I had several back ops fail and then went to have a multi level fusion that as the experts say fused well has created more problems. your doctors see you from time to time and I guess judge your pain on what they see for that short consult but if I am having certain pain in areas that are not improving from physio or hydro I will print of a picture of a body in a physiology section and highlight the areas of pain and explain where it travels to like legs, groin, buttocks, hips, lumbar, feet, neck, ribs etc so they get it. just a hint but I have been doing it as I did the journal thing but it was too depressing as it never changed much as I was always in pain. Also you should change meds every 12 months as your body does get used to them so changing a way meds send messages to the brain can alter better physical changes to relieve the pain this is science. as the body gets used to a certain med you find the need to increase to control the pain.
      We really need to tell the doctors this is what I have read or a friend tried this and the outcome was this……..as for surgeons you have buckles as in there eyes they are equal if not greater than the man above.
      Anyway Hope some tips help but research is good and I try so many different things to manage my pain daily.