Why, and How, to Keep a Symptom Journal
When something's off in your body, you usually know it. And a condition that presents with mild symptoms can develop into a more serious issue that begins to impact your quality of life over time. The trouble is, we're so used to "mild" symptoms—such as fatigue, headaches, or even weird aches and pains in unfamiliar places—we begin to associate them as our body's new normal.
Ignoring what could be important warning signs may make it more difficult to identify serious illnesses or chronic conditions early. As any medical professional will tell you, early diagnosis is key to finding a successful cure.
Something that you normally wouldn't be concerned about today may take on some urgency when you realize how long you've been experiencing it.
One way to keep your doctor abreast of new changes in your body's behavior or condition is by keeping a symptom journal—that is, a physical or electronic notebook of your body's symptoms, allowing you to track how you're feeling, any weird side effects of a new medicine or an unexplained ailment, giving you a point of reference if required.
It's a handy tool for someone already battling chronic or autoimmune diseases, but it can additionally be a useful tool for monitoring everyday health.
How a symptom journal works
A symptom journal is pretty straightforward. You'll first decide on the format—some people prefer to physically take notes in a notebook or calendar, while others might keep a digital notepad on their smartphone or a spreadsheet on their laptop.
From there, record how you're feeling each day, whether you're experiencing any unusual symptoms, with a space for updates with regard to how you feel at different times of day, such as before and after meals. You can then use this data to give you perspective over a period of time to determine if anything seems off in your body. For example, a rash might not be a cause for concern, but if you look over your symptom journal and see the rash has been an on-and-off issue for the past month, you may want to bring it up with your doctor. Something that you normally wouldn't be concerned about today may take on some urgency when you realize how long you've been experiencing it.
Six reasons to record your symptoms
The biggest benefit to keeping your symptom journal up to date is that you have something substantial to offer your doctor when they request more details about your health.
The emphasis here is quality over quantity. There are no extra points for filling the page each day, and if there's nothing to note today, you might consider just jotting down a check mark. This is your symptom journal, no one else is going to read it—make it work for you and you alone.
Try taking two minutes out of your day to think about yourself and your body, and make a couple of notes if there's anything to report. Don't skip over it if you think something is insignificant. That's the point—something innocuous today may lead you to realize it's something more serious in a week or two.
Here are some of the most common benefits of keeping a symptom journal.
Can lead to more accurate disease diagnoses
Knowing what symptoms you've experienced, how often and when can be helpful during the diagnosis process.
According to Tsao-Lin Moy, founder of Integrative Healing Arts, an acupuncture clinic in New York City, a symptom journal can help you become more proactive on your health journey.
"When we go to the doctor and have tests performed, they only offer a snapshot of what is going on at the moment," Moy explained. "This can lead to inaccurate diagnoses and poor care because the physician has less information to work with."
Can help identify food sensitivities and allergies
Michelle Rauch, a registered dietician at The Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey, noted a symptom journal can help identify foods or beverages that may be causing you distress.
"As a dietitian, I always recommend my clients record what they have eaten that day, along with any symptoms that they might be experiencing," Rauch said. "For instance, if you're experiencing painful bloating and notice your symptoms flare up after eating certain foods, you may be able to pinpoint foods you're sensitive to and ask for food intolerance testing."
May lead to more favorable outcomes
"Many autoimmune conditions are difficult to diagnose because symptoms come and go, and may disappear for years before they cause major health issues," Moy said. "Often the symptoms don't follow a particular disease pattern, which is actually the 'pattern.'"
According to Moy, when patients participate in their own wellness and are involved in the decision-making process, they often have better outcomes. A 2014 study indicates that active involvement in our own health can improve our overall well-being.
Can help you conceive
If you or your partner are struggling to get pregnant, you may want to try keeping a symptom journal. It could improve your chances by allowing you to follow your cycle more closely and identify any problems early on.
Moy says, "For women trying to conceive, keeping a journal of their menstrual cycle, PMS symptoms and tracking ovulation can identify if there are underlying hormonal imbalances, such as PCOS, endometriosis, low progesterone or an unidentified pituitary problem."
Identifying these issues early can help your doctor prescribe the next course of action, to get you closer to the conception process.
Can help you identify mental health problems
When you're struggling with mental health issues, it can be easy to dismiss your symptoms and blame them on stress, a bad day or other external reasons. Keeping track of your feelings in a symptom journal may help you identify a pattern more quickly, allowing your doctor to better diagnose your issues and suggest appropriate treatments.
Moy also recommends scrapbooking and journaling for anyone struggling with PTSD, as research shows this can benefit their wellness and help identify concerning mental health behaviors in advance.
If you suffer from anxiety, you can also use your symptom journal to help flag situations that cause episodes, allowing you to unpack your reactions and better anticipate how you'll feel in similar circumstances.
Can improve the quality of routine checkups
How many times have you gone to the doctor, only to leave realizing you forgot to mention symptoms you were experiencing months ago?
"Physician time is short (the average office visit is limited to 15 minutes), and the more prepared and buttoned up the patient is for any doctor's appointment or telehealth visit, the more the patient will get out of it," said Karen Curtiss, founder of CarePartnerProject.org.
Going in with an overview of your symptoms and an idea of any patterns that are occurring can help you make the most of the limited time you have with your physician.