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When is Joint Pain an Emergency?

It’s not uncommon to experience pain in your joints. Many times, the pain is more of an annoyance than a serious issue. You may have a common cold that’s taking a toll on your joints, or you may have done a workout that’s causing your joints to be a bit sore.

However, there are times when pain is not just a pain. It’s a red flag. And you need emergency care.

Here are three times when joint pain should signal that a trip to the emergency room should be in store:

1. When the Pain Shows Symptoms of an Infection

You have probably heard of arthritis—an inflammation (swelling) of one or more joints. It’s known to cause pain, stiffness, and difficulty moving. There are more than 100 types of arthritis, and many of them are chronic, or long-lasting.

Septic arthritis (also called “infectious arthritis”) is a severe type that most often occurs when a bacterial infection in another part of your body makes its way to the joint.

Some of the common signs of septic arthritis include:

  • Severe joint pain
  • Joint swelling or redness
  • Being unable to move the limb with the affected joint (e.g., not being able to move your arm because your elbow is affected)
  • Fever
  • Chills

The good news is that septic arthritis is often treatable. If the infection is due to bacteria, your physician may prescribe antibiotics or drain fluid from the joint.

Infection caused by a fungus may require antifungal medicine, or possibly surgery to remove the infected tissue. And an infection caused by a virus usually needs no treatment at all — it goes away on its own.

The bad news is that if you delay treatment, you risk permanent damage to your joint, leading to joint dysfunction.

If you notice symptoms of septic arthritis, it’s important to get to the Emergency Department, rather than wait for an appointment with your physician. That’s because joint damage can begin in as little as 48 hours after the infection appears.

2. You Have a Sprain That’s More Than a Pain

Sprains are common injuries that occur when one of your ligaments — the tissues that connect bones at a joint — become stretched or torn. They’re usually caused by falling, twisting, or getting hit. You may feel a tear or pop when it happens. Sprains happen most commonly in the ankle and wrist.

Symptoms of sprains typically include pain, bruising, swelling and the inability to move your joint. And while these symptoms are certainly a nuisance, they’re usually not a cause for alarm.

Most sprains can be treated with a little RICE: Rest, ice, compression, elevation. Your physician may also recommend painkillers or physical therapy.

However, there are times when a sprain requires more immediate medical attention.

If you have a sprain, and experience any of these symptoms, it’s time to take a trip to an Express Care Clinic:

  • Red streaks or redness that spreads out from the injury
  • Inability to put weight on an injured leg
  • Inability to use your injured joint
  • The joint feels numb or unstable

You should also go to Express Care if you have reinjured an area that you have injured several times in the past, or if the sprain seems severe.

These symptoms can point to infections, broken bones or completely torn ligaments. You may need a brace, splint or surgery if the Express Care providers determine that it’s a severe injury.

If you experience signs that the sprain is an emergency, it’s important not just to “work through the pain.” Delayed or incorrect treatment can cause long-term instability or chronic pain in the joint. If you can’t get to Express Care, make sure that you see your primary care provider as soon as possible.

3. You or Your Child Has Signs of Rheumatic Fever

Rheumatic fever is another type of inflammatory (swelling) disease. Although it can happen to patients of any age, it usually affects children ages 5 to 15.

People with rheumatic fever usually develop it after having a streptococcus bacterial infection, such as strep throat or scarlet fever. It usually develops 2 to 4 weeks after the infection.

Rheumatic fever can affect the joints in several ways. It can cause pain, tenderness, swelling, redness and heat at the joint. The pain often appears to move from joint to joint.

Since these joint problems can be symptoms of many different diseases, it’s important to look for other symptoms of rheumatic fever. These include:

  • Fever
  • Chest pain
  • Heart murmur
  • Fatigue
  • A flat or slightly raised rash
  • Jerky, uncontrollable movements in the face, hands or feet

Fortunately, rheumatic fever is not very common in the U.S. However, when it does occur, it can cause severe heart damage.

It’s possible to recover from rheumatic fever and escape significant heart damage. But rheumatic fever tends to be a recurring illness, meaning it’s likely to come back.

If you or your child is diagnosed with rheumatic fever, the physician may prescribe long-term antibiotics to prevent it from coming back, lowering the risk of further heart damage.

If you or your child has strep throat or scarlet fever, take your medication as directed by your physician — rheumatic fever occurs when these illnesses aren’t treated correctly.

Go to the Emergency Department if you or your child has rheumatic fever symptoms 2 to 4 weeks after strep throat or scarlet fever.


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