When to Consult An Online Expert and When to Visit A Doctor on Chronic Pain

Karen Lee Richards Health Guide
  • Someone recently took issue with my answer to a question.  I won't go into detail, but a lady had been having pain in her leg for three months and it was getting worse.  My answer was, “If you've had this pain for three months, you really need to see a doctor.  Something like that can't be diagnosed online – a doctor needs to be able to examine you to determine what the problem is.”  The gentleman who had a problem with my answer felt I should have made some suggestions or educated guesses as to what the problem might be.  He pointed out that not everyone can afford to go to the doctor. 

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    I can certainly appreciate not being able to afford a visit to the doctor since I personally don't have/can't get health insurance and have had to make some tough decisions in that area myself.  However, there are some very good reasons we can't make “educated guesses” when it comes to a medical diagnosis and this seems like a good opportunity to share those reasons with you.

    Imagine If...

    I'd like you to imagine a scenerio with me. You go to your doctor's office for an appointment.  When you walk into the treatment room, your doctor is sitting there blindfolded with her hands tied behind her back.  You sit down and an office assistant reads a list of your symptoms to the doctor. 

    Would you be comfortable with the doctor diagnosing and treating you at that point?  Or how would you feel if the office assistant made the diagnosis?  Would you feel safe entrusting your health and possibly your life to a doctor who couldn't see you, examine you or even hear the inflections in your voice?  Or to someone who wasn't even a physician, although she may have worked with doctors and patients for several years?  I doubt it.  I know I wouldn't.  Yet that is essentially what you're doing when you ask for a diagnosis online. 

    Below are answers to some questions about what our experts can and can't do when it comes to diagnosing the causes of your pain. 

    If you're “experts,” why can't you tell me what's wrong with me?

    HealthCentral has different kinds of experts.  Some, like myself, are patient experts.  We have and live with the conditions we write about.  You can check out our individual profiles for the details of our background and experience, but most of us have been involved in the field, working with doctors and patients, for many years.  We can't diagnose or treat for obvious reasons – we're not doctors.  What we can do is share what we've learned from study and personal experience.  And we can empathize with what you're going through because we've been there, too.

    Some HealthCentral experts are physicians and they certainly have the qualifications to diagnose and treat patients.  However, no reputable physician will do so online.  Why? Because a lot more goes into making an accurate diagnosis than just hearing a few symptoms.  A few things doctors take into consideration when making a diagnosis include:

    • Your complete medical history
    • Significant medical conditions in your family
    • A thorough physical examination
    • Laboratory test results (bloodwork, x-rays, MRIs, etc.)
    • Details about current symptoms (onset, frequency, duration, etc.)
    • What medications and supplements you are taking
    • Whether you smoke or drink alcohol regularly

    Your doctor can also learn a lot about what's happening in your body just by observing you – your eyes, tongue, the texture and tone of your skin, how you walk, the tone of your voice, etc.  And your doctor needs to be able to ask you questions that may help her pinpoint the cause of your problem.  There's just no way any doctor can gather all the necessary information through an online question – even if the asker provides a lot of detailed information. 

    I know you can't give me a definite diagnosis, but why can't you at least give me some idea of what might be wrong?

    I understand the frustration of not knowing what is causing your pain because it took me seven years to get a diagnosis myself.  And I know that often you're worried and just want someone to put your mind at ease.  But it can be dangerous to guess at what might be causing someone's pain.  Suppose we tell a man that what he described sounds like a pulled muscle.  He may put off going to the doctor figuring it will eventually go away, only to discover several months later that it's something serious which could have been easily resolved if it had been caught eariler.

    While we can't give you a specific diagnosis, we do have a Symptom Checker tool that may be able to show you some possibilies that fit your particular symptoms.  And if you're having trouble getting a diagnosis, we may suggest some things you could ask your doctor about.  Or we may tell you what kind of specialist may be able to help you.  But we're pretty much always going to tell you to see your doctor.  It's just not worth taking a chance when it comes to your health and safety. 

    If you can't tell me what's causing my pain, what good is your Web site?

    No reputible Web site is going to offer you a personal diagnosis.  ChronicPainConnection does offer you:

    • Accurate, up-to-date information about different chronic pain conditions
    • Information about current treatment options
    • Tips for living with pain, communicating with your doctor, helping family understand, etc.
    • A place of support and encouragement where you can meet and interact with other chronic pain patients

    I hope this has helped clarify just what you can expect from your ChronicPainConnection experts. 

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Published On: March 10, 2010