Have you ever left a doctor’s appointment feeling like you didn’t get the answers you were hoping for? Medical conditions can be tricky to diagnose, and often require multiple visits and a series of tests to identify correctly. It can be frustrating, time-consuming—and expensive.
Conditions like food allergies and sensitivities, digestive issues, and chronic pain can be especially difficult to pinpoint, and that’s where a symptom journal can help.
Keeping a written record of your symptoms can help your healthcare team identify subtle differences between similar conditions. The more information you can provide, the more accurate your diagnosis and treatment will be. Keeping a symptom journal is an easy form of preventive self-care that helps ensure you get the best, most affordable care possible.
Here are some things to consider as you begin creating a symptom journal:
What is a Symptom Journal?
Simply put, a symptom journal is a **collection of observations about your health**. It helps you identify areas of concern and alerts you when something isn’t quite right in your body.
How to Keep a Symptom Journal
Vague information isn’t helpful to your healthcare team. They need details to make the best decisions about your care. While there are many apps and specialized health journals on the market, you can easily use your existing journal to begin recording important information about your health.
Before you begin, ask your healthcare provider which specific pieces of information would be the most useful. Here are some things you might consider including in your journal:
What is happening in your body? Put your symptoms into words and describe them in as much detail as possible. For example, instead of listing a symptom as “coughing,” describe it in greater detail. Is it a dry cough? Is it productive (and is there a color to it)? Is your cough painful? Where exactly does it hurt? Don’t worry about being too graphic or providing too much information. Your health care team has seen it all, and the more details you provide, the better. Sometimes the seemingly insignificant details can be the most helpful, as it can highlight minor differences between medical conditions.
When do your symptoms occur? Note the day of the week and time of day you typically experience symptoms, and be sure to include how long the symptoms last. Pay attention to other factors, like whether your symptoms appear only in certain situations, like when you’re eating or drinking, when you’re around cigarette smoke, or when pollen counts are high.
Where exactly are the symptoms occurring? Pay attention to where in your body the symptoms are showing up. Being able to isolate the area of concern will be helpful to your medical team. Also include where you are physically when your symptoms appear—at home, at work, or when you’re out walking the dog?
Include any relevant numbers, such as blood pressure readings, blood sugar values, temperatures, pain levels (using a scale of 1 to 10 to indicate severity), body weight, medication and supplement timing and dosages, amounts of food and beverages consumed, and any other measurable data points that are relevant. Keeping a detailed record helps your healthcare team see trends over time, which can lead them to the most effective treatment options. Symptom journals can also offer vital information about whether or not an existing treatment or medication is working. And that means adjustments can be made earlier.
Draw pictures, take photos, or find images on the internet to help describe your symptoms. This can be extremely helpful for conditions with visible symptoms, like rashes or swelling. Photos can also be helpful when symptoms are difficult to describe in words.
What Makes It Worse?
What makes your symptoms worse? Think about the factors that cause your symptoms to worsen. Knowing what triggers your symptoms and makes them worse is an important piece of information for your medical team. For example, are your symptoms more severe when you move around or when you’re resting? Do you only experience pain when you stretch or bend in certain way? Pay attention to how your symptoms ebb and flow throughout the day.
What Makes It Better?
What makes your symptoms better? Think about the factors that cause your symptoms to improve. Which medications, therapies, or self-care strategies tend to improve your symptoms? For example, do your symptoms get better when you’re lying down compared to when you’re sitting up? These slight differences can help your provider zone in on the most effective treatments.
Once you’ve collected information for a few days, the next step is to summarize your findings. Most health care professionals don’t have time to comb through your records. What they need is a summary of your observations. It’s much more helpful to them when say that you experienced heartburn 8 times in the last 30 days than to hand your doctor a pile of hand-written notes. Take some time to look over your data before visiting with your healthcare provider. Here are a few things to consider as you review:
Look for Patterns
Identify any patterns that emerge from your data. For example, notice which of your symptoms you experience most frequently. Do they occur only on certain days of the week or times of day? Do some symptoms cluster together? Review your numbers to see if there are any obvious patterns.
Organize Your Data
If your journal entries include a lot of numbers, it may be helpful to transfer your data to a spreadsheet or another program that will help your health care team make better sense of it. If you struggle with technology, ask a friend of family member to help you. They may even be able to identify patterns that you missed. The more organized you are, the better prepared you’ll be to answer your doctor’s questions when discussing your symptoms.
If keeping a detailed journal feels too tedious or overwhelming, try these simple journal prompts to help uncover more information about what’s happening in your body:
What is my body trying to tell me?
Write a narrative description of your symptoms by asking your body what it’s trying to tell you.
How is my health limiting me?
Describe how your current symptoms or health condition are limiting you. What are your day-to-day struggles and challenges?
What concerns me the most?
What are your biggest concerns about your health? This question will help you identify the most important aspects of your symptoms, and help guide future discussions with your healthcare team.
It’s important to note that keeping a symptom journal is not the same as self-diagnosing. Leave the official diagnosis to your doctor and focus solely on collecting vital information for your healthcare team. They are best suited to use the information to establish a diagnosis and select the best treatment for you.
Creating a symptom journal is an easy way to help you get to know your body on a deeper level. It can help you identify changes in your health earlier, so you can make the necessary changes to maintain good health.
Remember: **You are more than just a patient; you are the director of your healthcare team.**
Information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be interpreted as providing or replacing medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Author bio: STACY FISHER, RDN, LD, CDCES is the founder of LivingUpp™, a lifestyle design company that teaches women how to use a self-care planning system to create more ease and better health. She is a registered dietitian and lifestyle coach with 20+ years of experience in the healthcare industry, where she’s worked with large companies such as Dell, Boeing and Nike. Stacy is the author of The Lifestyle Design Planner, a flexible life organizer for high-achievers who value self-care and simplicity.
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