Self Diagnosis: Is it helpful?
An important part of caring for your organism is trying to understand it better, it’s not a bad idea to do this all the time, but it seems more compelling to make the attempt when there is an unpleasant situation we are trying to resolve.
Unfortunately there are a couple of common mistakes that lead people farther away from the resolution of their injury or pain.
One of the first hiccups in this process of understanding any given pain problem is the idea that giving it a name is necessary or useful. It’s only useful if it gives us information that can be applied. I can tell you that it’s an Olive-Sided Flycatcher, but does that give you any information you can apply (well…maybe it eats…flies?) What’s the use of calling it carpal tunnel syndrome if that doesn’t tell you what it’s nature is? If you can understand its nature then you can make informed choices about how to interact with it.
If we can set down any need we might have to name the thing, and seek instead to understand it we can help ourselves more.
The other big hiccup, that goes hand in hand with striving first to name, is to get attached to some idea about what’s going on, and then try to make the symptoms fit into the diagnosis. This is so easy to do–and not helpful.
An example of this would be trying to figure out why your shoulder is hurting and to studiously avoid the idea that it could be a nerve problem coming from your neck. The idea of a nerve problem in the neck may seem scarier than a damaged shoulder muscle. (It’s not necessarily any worse or better.) but if you don’t have accurate information you won’t be able to make the best treatment choices. I know people have ideas about what they definitely don’t want it to be. Likewise sometimes people really, really hurt and are incredulous to learn that it’s essentially, just a scratch.
The reason these two hiccups are best avoided is not simply because they may cause you to reach an inaccurate conclusion. Though, as I mentioned, accuracy is key to making the most effective treatment choices. However, there is another problem called catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing is broadly defined as a tendency to focus excessively on pain and to exaggerate it’s threat value. For instance having severe back pain and thinking that it might affect your career, instead of thinking that you might have tweaked a nerve sheath and you’ll be fine in a few days.
In my line of work this tends to mean that when a person experiences pain they begin to visualize tissue damage, but there are many soft tissue pain situations where there is no underlying tissue damage. This has to do with the complex nature of the pain experience and the brains heavy involvement in what it will and won’t perceive as a potential threat to the organism.
If you’re looking things up on the internet and not being very circumspect and dispassionate about evaluating the information, it could trigger a state of alarm…an exaggeration of the threat value of your situation. There is a fair amount of research indicating that catastrophization directly contributes to more pain and less activity and extends the amount of time it takes to reach get better.
If catastrophizing hurts us, what helps?
Instead, I recommend paying attention to your pain, trying to listen to the information it’s giving you, but rather than worrying about or fearing it, instead to be curious about it. See if you can feel exactly where it is, what it’s size and texture is. Even try moving into a painful position and just waiting and watching to see how the pain moves when you do that, if it has a new center and a new shape. By doing this you’re teaching a jumpy nervous system that every loud noise isn’t something scary.