5 Tips for Keeping a Symptom Diary for Headaches, Digestive Problems & MoreMay 24, 2023 - Katie McCallum
Recurring headaches, frequent bouts of digestive discomfort, pain that won't go away, sleep problems, asthma attacks, period pain — when uncomfortable or disruptive health issues linger, it can really impact your day-to-day life.
Pinpointing the source of the issue and how best to resolve it can be challenging. It's why these things can persist for months on end or continue to come and go, flaring up seemingly without warning.
One tool your doctor may suggest is keeping a symptom diary, also called a symptom journal or symptom log.
"A symptom diary is a log of a person's symptoms and other particular details surrounding those symptoms," explains Erica Vinogradov, a family nurse practitioner at Houston Methodist. "It's a focused, information-gathering exercise that helps organize these details in a way that can be useful when talking to your care provider."
Depending on your specific health concern, your doctor may also refer to it as a food diary, headache diary, sleep diary or general symptom diary.
Why keep a symptom diary?
One of the primary benefits of a symptom diary is overcoming the ambiguity surrounding your health issue.
"With lingering health problems, we're often trying to identify either patterns or triggers related to your symptoms — or both, depending on the issue," explains Vinogradov. "The more detailed the information you provide us, the better."
Recalling such details shouldn't be too much of an issue though, right? You're the one experiencing the symptoms after all. But you might be surprised …
"Everything from symptom severity and frequency to which remedies you've tried and how much they helped can be hard to articulate clearly from memory alone," says Vinogradov. "It can also be challenging to answer the related follow-up questions your doctor might have."
For instance, would you be able to list — off the top of your head — what you ate and drank the day before your last bad headache? Or can you easily remember the time of the day your headache felt most severe?
That's where a symptom diary comes in.
"It gives you a way to organize your symptom history so that we can provide a more meaningful clinical interpretation," adds Vinogradov. "Whether we're using this information to diagnose the issue or help you better manage your symptoms, detailed documentation can make a big difference."
Another benefit of a symptom diary is the empowerment it can provide, giving you direct involvement in the management of your health. It can also help you continue to learn the potential patterns and triggers associated with your specific issue, helping you more easily course correct or make lifestyle changes when needed.
How to keep a symptom diary
If your symptoms aren't going away and you're ready to start documenting them, here are Vinogradov's five tips for keeping a symptom diary:
1. Put pen to paper or try an app
Unless your doctor requests a specific format, this decision is mostly up to your personal preference.
You might find writing out your symptoms in an actual diary to be somewhat therapeutic, like journaling for mental clarity or stress relief.
Or you might prefer the on-the-go convenience of simply using an app. There are many different symptom diary and symptom tracking apps available, some free, some for a charge.
2. Know what information you should include
As far as what you should plan to document, the key details of a general symptom diary include:
- The date
- Symptoms experienced
- Timing of symptoms
- Duration of symptoms
- Symptom severity
- Potential triggers
- Medications or remedies used
- How you responded to treatment
Troubleshooting certain health issues — such as headaches, stomach problems and trouble falling or staying asleep — might require even more information.
The American Academy of Family Physicians provides the following symptom diary templates:
If you're using an app, it will likely have predefined details for you to report on based on your particular health issue. You can also typically create your own custom categories, if certain details are missing.
3. Be consistent
"We're looking for patterns, and the higher quality the information, the better," says Vinogradov. "Try to record every single day and include the same information every time — being as clear, concise and organized as possible."
One of Vinogradov's most important tips: Don't leave any fields blank, as this can leave room for misinterpretation.
"For instance, if you didn't have any symptoms that day, write that down. Otherwise, we may assume you simply forgot to log that day," says Vinogradov. "Or, if you had symptoms but, let's say, you didn't take any medication for it, write that information down instead of leaving that field blank."
4. Be honest
Don't omit symptoms — or downplay them.
That said ... be careful you're not exaggerating them either.
"There are studies suggesting that daily documentation of symptoms might increase a person's perception of the severity of the symptom," adds Vinogradov. "This gets back to consistency. Try to document your symptoms without bias each day."
5. Share your symptom diary with your doctor
At your next appointment, be sure to let your doctor know you've been tracking your symptoms via a diary, journal or log and provide them with the information, as needed.
"Your doctor may prefer that you refer to the symptom diary as they ask questions or they may request to have a copy, depending on the issue or their preference for reviewing the information," adds Vinogradov.
Some apps and other online tools allow you to share your symptom information with your doctor electronically, but your doctor will let you know the most appropriate way to share this information with them.