Orthopedic Injuries: When to Seek Care

Most of us experience everyday injuries from time to time. Should you seek medical care? This guide will help you decide.
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Even the most coordinated among us will likely experience injury at various times in our lives: an overzealous serve on the tennis court; a simple trip over an unnoticed obstacle; aching knees from…who knows what. Most often, these types of common injuries can be treated at home with rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE), and maybe an over-the-counter pain reliever.

In some situations, however, it’s important to see an orthopedic doctor—a specialist who treats injuries and diseases of the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, nerves and tendons. Why? Because some conditions can get much worse if not treated quickly and properly.

In the knee, one such condition is an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear. The symptoms can include hearing a “pop” during the injury, immediate inability to continue activity, knee swelling in the first 24 hours and knee instability. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Hip problems are also common and can lead to serious complications if not treated. Always consult your physician for medical advice, but a general rule is to seek your doctor’s help for hip pain that comes on suddenly or is the result of a fall. Other red flags include hip pain that occurs at night or when resting; swelling, redness or warmth around the joint; not being able to put weight on the hip; and not being able to move the leg or hip.

Eighty percent of people will experience back pain in their lifetime. Most cases resolve themselves with a day or two of rest, application of heat or cold to the painful area and over-the-counter pain medication. However, see a doctor if you have tingling or numbness, if the pain is the result of a fall or injury, or if the pain is severe and doesn’t improve with rest. In addition, seek medical care if back pain occurs with unintended weight loss, with fever, with swelling or redness on the back, or down one or both legs.

Not every injury or pain requires a trip to the doctor, but in the situations outlined above, getting prompt treatment can mean the difference between a quick recovery and a lifelong problem. As always, these are guidelines, not rules.

When to See a Doctor

Make an appointment if you experience:

  • Chronic pain—anything lasting longer than 12 weeks
  • More limited range of motion
  • Instability while walking or standing
  • Difficulty performing everyday activities, such as walking the dog or using stairs
  • A soft-tissue injury, like a sprain or twisted ankle, that doesn’t improve despite applying RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation)

The Age Factor

After age 40, people are more likely to experience an orthopedic injury. These are most common:

  • Tennis elbow—Weak grip strength and pain or burning sensation outside the elbow
  • Stress fractures—Minor hairline fractures caused by impact and overuse, common in runners
  • Lower-back pain—Caused by obesity, arthritis, loss of bone density and a sedentary lifestyle
  • Rotator-cuff tears—Sore shoulder or limited mobility caused by normal wear and tear in athletes and as people age
  • Meniscus and ACL tears—Pain in the knee that can be caused by everyday activities like hiking, kneeling or walking down stairs

“One way to avoid orthopedic injuries is to maintain strength and flexibility as you age. In addition, stretching your muscles before playing a sport is crucial to help avoid any injury.” —Michael Kelly, M.D., chair, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine, and chair, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Hackensack Meridian Health Hackensack University Medical Center

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