Full confession, I really do not like the word diagnosis. It is a little too limited, definitive, and stodgy for my tastes. I believe that we would be better served just identifying dysfunctional body parts than knowing fancy words that typically just describe symptoms. That saying, understanding symptoms and how they relate to dysfunctional body parts is extremely beneficial when coming up with treatment options. Understanding anatomy, biomechanics, and physiology can make diagnosing musculo-skeletal injuries so easy it is a wonder why most doctors get it wrong most of the time.
It is important to understand location and type of symptoms to make a proper diagnosis. Location of symptoms does not necessarily indicate location of dysfunction. Many dysfunctional body parts refer symptoms to other parts of the body. Luckily, there are patterns which come is handy for those clever enough to recognize those patterns. The type of symptoms tell a good doctor what kind of structure is dysfunctional.
Embryologically speaking, there are three types of structures: bone, consisting of bones, joints, ligaments, discs, and cartilage; muscle, consisting of muscles, tendons, and organs; and nerve, which encompasses tissues of the brain, spinal cord, cranial nerves, autonomic nerves, nerve roots, and peripheral nerves. Bone symptoms are typically described as a deep dull ache and can refer to other bone-like structures. Muscle is also an ache but feels more like fatigue and soreness. Muscle is more superficial and usually stays within the same structure. Nerve symptoms are more electrical in nature; numbness and tingling, just numbness, burning, shooting, etc. Nerves stay in the network of nerves. Knowing this will get you pretty far.
Consultation is the first step. I ask for location and have the patient describe the symptoms. I also look for the mechanism of injury knowing that some structures are more likely to fail, depending on the stress placed on them, than others. With a good consultation, I have a fairly solid idea of what the problem is.
The second step is to do an exam. Bone structures cannot move themselves. For these tests, I do the movement on the patient checking for instability, pain, and altered movement. When I isolate joint movements, I can narrow down the location of dysfunction. Instability tests will suggest ligament issues (assuming we are not dumb enough to do a stability test on a complete fracture). X-ray is helpful to see fractures and degenerative changes. MRI is helpful to see disc bulges, ligament tears, and pathology. Repetitive movement works great for determining how to reform a bulged disc.
Muscles and tendons move bones. To test a muscle or tendon, resisting the muscle’s movement is an easy way to determine which muscle is injured. Why most doctors do not do this is baffling. Pain with resistance at the end of the muscle is usually tendon related and anywhere else is usually the muscle itself. If the type of pain is described as muscular but cannot be recreated with resisted movement, it could be an organ referring pain. Here again, repetitively resisting movement can really help determine how to help treat the injured structure.
Nerve symptoms require some specialized tests in the form of reflexes and sensation testing. True neurological injuries are very difficult to diagnose and to treat. In addition, any of the above can cause secondary and tertiary issues in other parts of the body, like muscles spasms or nerve pain due to encroachment with a disc herniation, for example.
Finally, one of the best ways to diagnose an issue is to treat the issue and see if it helps. Obviously you cannot do this with everything, but as a chiropractor, I can do this for most injuries. Even a surgeon will tell you that nothing is definitive until they open you up and see it in real life. The point being do not get too caught up with figuring out what something is before trying to treat it. Ruling out conditions is still valuable.
There you have it. Instead of plugging symptoms into WebMD to discover that you have a rare, incurable, terminal illness, just step back and look at the anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics of the body and go from there. Or, see your local chiropractor and let them help you through your issues or point you in the right direction. We spend a tremendous amount of time learning about all aspects of the human body.