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Medical History

By Michael C. Levin, MD, Saskatchewan Multiple Sclerosis Clinical Research Chair and Professor of Neurology and Anatomy-Cell Biology; Adjunct Professor of Neurology, College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan; University of Tennessee Health Science Center

Before doing a physical examination, doctors interview the person.

Doctors ask the person to describe current symptoms:

  • What the symptoms are like precisely

  • Where and how often they occur

  • How severe they are

  • How long they last

  • What makes symptoms worse

  • What relieves symptoms

  • Whether daily activities can still be done

Doctors often ask the person to describe the order in which symptoms occur. This information can help doctors identify the cause. Keeping a record of when symptoms occur in a diary can help the person remember and report more accurately.

The person is also asked about past or present illnesses and past operations, serious illnesses in close blood relatives, allergies, and drugs currently being taken. Questions about work, social contacts, and travel may be asked to find out whether the person has been exposed to unusual infections or toxins.

In addition, doctors may ask whether the person has had work-related or home-related difficulties, such as loss of a job or a death in the family, because such circumstances may affect the person’s health and ability to cope with illness.

Other questions are asked to identify any symptoms that the person may have overlooked or thought unimportant when describing the main problem.