I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and ask how to bring up digestive symptoms with their doctor. It’s easy to have problems dismissed when talking to doctors, especially for those people who are perceived as being female or are female presenting.
I don’t have all the answers. I still have trouble getting taken seriously by some doctors, despite everything that is on record as being wrong with me physically. I do have some suggestions, that I have learned from my own experiences.
Please note, I will make mention of bowel movements and bodily fluids, so please keep that in mind while reading.
- Keep track of your symptoms
Questions you are likely to be asked regarding pain:
What type of pain? Where is it? Does it get worse after eating? How long does it last?
Questions you are likely to be asked regarding blood or stool:
What is the consistency (Bristol Stool Chart)? How much blood? Was it dark red? Clotted? Pink and watery? Does your stool contain what looks like coffee grinds?
By having answers ready for these questions, you can move the process along more quickly since the doctors will have a better idea of what they are looking for.
- Don’t Underplay it
It can be really tempting to try and make things seem not as bad. This is especially true of women and people with anxiety. You don’t want to seem like you are exaggerating so you downplay how serious it actually is. This is something I struggle with as well. Often times, I don’t want to seem like a burden or get people down so I will often make it seem like things aren’t as bad as they are. When with company or dealing with strangers, this impulse isn’t the worst, but it backfires quite a bit when talking to doctors.
It’s important to remember that most doctors are themselves abled, so they don’t have the same experiences to provide insight into what your life is like. I realized this a few years ago when I figured out that when I was telling my doctor that I felt fine, he was taking that to mean that I was symptomless. To me however, fine meant that my symptoms were no more noticeable than usual. That I was existing in a state where my symptoms could be mostly ignored because I was used to dealing with them at this level.
Fine to him mean level 0 pain. Fine to me meant between level 4 and 6.
Similarly, you cannot count on doctors to understand how symptoms that are severe to someone who has nothing else going on, might appear less severe to someone who is used to dealing with health related issues on a daily basis.
This is not the time to make it seem not as bad. If anything you want to err in the opposite direction.
- Don’t Wait Until Things are too Severe
Whether it is fear of the doctor in general, or learned fear from having had various symptoms ignored or used to shame you, it is not uncommon for people to delay going to the doctor until things have gotten too serious to ignore. This seems to be especially true when dealing with bowel problems, probably because people feel uncomfortable discussing something so private.
Although I was seeing doctors for my inability to keep food down, I didn’t bring up the frequency of my bowel movements till I realized how much weight I had actually lost. I realized that it was all connected. The problem was that by that point, the issue had gotten much more serious. If not for the intervention of my rheumatologist who was able to get me an earlier appointment, the long wait times for a GI specialist could have ended very badly for me. It possible by the time I saw the doctor, my intestines would have been too damaged to save.
It’s important to get things checked out as they happen. I understand the impulse to wait until there is something to show, but that can have severe long term consequences. Talk to your doctor as soon as you can. That way, if it takes a while to get the referrals you need, you aren’t risking more severe side effects while you wait.
- Take Pictures
I call it Mechanic Effect. You can have a serious symptom appear like clockwork, but the moment you go to the hospital or the doctor, suddenly it stops. Then when you get home, it starts right up again. I had this happen to me several times, especially when it comes to me passing blood. I managed to have blood in every bowel movement for one week straight, then as soon as I got to the hospital, it stopped.
In addition to the symptoms randomly stopping once you are with a doctor, I always face the same questions about how much blood, the colour of it, and so forth.
The last time I started experiencing a significant amount of blood loss, I decided to take a picture of that and ever successive blood BM. That way, when asked about the details, I was able to simply show them. The benefit of using a picture is that you don’t have to count on the doctors believing you, because they can see for themselves that you are telling the truth. Moreover, you don’t have to rely on providing imprecise details.
Although it might seem gross, or disturbing, keeping visual track like this actually made it easier to explain the problem and to keep track for myself how severe the situation was. I was able to decide myself if it seemed to be improving or not. I didn’t have to rely on memory.
- Include other new symptoms.
During my first major Crohn’s flare, in addition to the digestive symptoms I was experiencing, I also had problems with my ankles. The side of them swelled significantly and I was limping pretty hard. Still, I never imagined that the two could be connected. It was only when I brought up both to the doctor that it was suggested that they might be related. Some conditions like Crohn’s and Colitis can cause joint symptoms in addition to digestive ones.
If there are additional symptoms like a rash, or joint pain, or bad breath, or poor sleep, that started around the same time as your digestive issues, bring those up with the doctor as well. When you are tracking your symptoms, include the other symptoms as well.
- Write down Everything you want to mention to the doctor.
When you are finally in the room with the doctor, it is easy to get frazzled and suddenly forget everything you wanted to talk about and mention. It’s a good idea to write everything down, at least in bullet points, and take that paper with you. Then when you are in front of the doctor, you have everything you need with you and can make sure you don’t forget anything.
For more information on how I got diagnosed with Crohn’s and Arthritis, as well as other topics related to disability. Consider buying my book; Young, Sick, and Invisible.