If you suffer from chronic pain and wonder why your doctor hasn’t been able to help you, it could be that your personality is affecting your care. A new survey shows that your relationship with your doctor—and more specifically how you come across when you talk to him/her—can dramatically influence the medical care you receive.

Background: Whether it’s caused by a back problem, arthritis, joint disease or some other condition, chronic pain is one of the leading reasons that Americans visit their doctors. It’s also one of the most challenging health problems to adequately treat.

To learn more about the ways that doctors’ judgments about their patients’ personalities may affect their care, researchers from California State University surveyed more than 700 doctors and patients with chronic pain.

Research findings: During doctor visits, the manner in which patients describe their pain affects how they are viewed by the doctor. Those who appeared to be depressed and/or whiny by dramatically complaining about their pain were judged more negatively by the doctors—and deemed less trustworthy regarding the severity of their pain and/or commitment to follow through with the treatment—than patients who were thought to be more stoic and/or upbeat.

The results of this survey were not conclusive, but they did suggest that even an unconscious prejudice toward a patient can get in the way of a healthy doctor-patient relationship—and might lead to inadequate treatment. Even though this research did not show that less trusted patients received worse care, other studies have found that pain patients are among the least-liked by their doctors, which may affect how the severity of their symptoms is assessed.

Implications: It can be difficult to create an open and honest relationship with your doctor—especially if you have a painful, hard-to-manage chronic condition. While it’s true that everyone feels pain differently and describes it in varying terms and communication styles, there are steps you can take to increase your odds of getting the best care from your doctor. Advice to follow at your next office visit…

  • Try your best to maintain a relaxed and pleasant demeanor. Think of your doctor as a teammate who can help you reach the goal of pain relief.
  • Describe your pain by combining words and numbers. For example, use descriptive words (such as stabbing, aching or throbbing) and a number scale (such as zero to 10, with zero meaning no pain and 10 meaning excruciating pain). You also can compare your current pain with a pain you’ve felt in the past, such as a broken ankle or passing a kidney stone.
  • Describe your family history of pain—especially if any other family members have a pain-related condition or are highly sensitive to pain.
  • Be as specific as possible in conveying the duration of your pain…the circumstances when it started…and anything that makes it better or worse. Helpful: Keep a “pain diary” in which you record your symptoms and their severity.
  • List some activities you enjoyed in the past but now avoid because of the pain.

Bonus: For a self-test that helps determine whether joint pain is muscular or structural, read here.