Back pain and the resolution of diagnostic uncertainty in illness narratives

Soc Sci Med. 2003 Sep;57(6):1045-54. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(02)00479-3.


In this paper I consider 30 Finnish women's written narratives about the process of getting back pain diagnosed. From the beginning of the early discomfort of back pain, the women were sure of its bodily and subjective reality. They struggled repeatedly to be taken seriously, and only after years of medical disparagement did they encounter medical professionals who were able solve the riddle and give it a name, a diagnosis. Since back pain is a baffling problem and challenges the central biomedical epistemology-objective knowledge and measurable findings separate from subjective experience-it allowed the doctors to show a disrespectful attitude toward back pain sufferers. The moral essence of the women's common story was the stigmatizing experience when doctors did not take subjective pain seriously. Instead, doctors' neglectful attitudes became part of the prolonged problem. During the long-lasting uncertainty, women tried multiple coping strategies to ease their lives and developed mental attitudes to endure the pain. Since the protagonists did not give up the lived certainty of back pain they were gradually able to challenge medical uncertainty and to demand a thorough medical examination, and/or through random circumstance they encountered doctors who were willing to take their symptoms seriously. This triggered turning points that immediately or very soon resulted in solving the riddle of the puzzling pain. To be finally diagnosed was a great relief. However, to be taken seriously as a person was considered to be the greatest relief.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Back Pain / diagnosis*
  • Back Pain / physiopathology
  • Back Pain / psychology
  • Chronic Disease
  • Female
  • Finland
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Narration
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Self Concept
  • Trust
  • Uncertainty*
  • Women's Health*