Oh, an aching joint. Will it get better on its own? What is wrong with it? Do I need to see a doctor? All of these questions may cross your mind when a joint is ailing you. As access to healthcare is getting more and more difficult, deciding when to see a doctor can be an arduous decision. However, seeing a doctor might be the only way to get some clear answers because talking to a stranger or friend who had a similar problem is not the best substitute for truly professional advice. Consulting with a primary care or general doctor might be good enough. Other times, a joint specialist is needed to help that aching joint. Just like a bone specialist is need for bone problems.
When should you see a joint specialist? Five scenarios exist that might require some special attention.
- Trauma: A fall or an accident can cause some significant damage to a joint. Immediate care might be needed if there is gross joint deformity like a dislocation or fracture. But most minor traumas some initial homecare first aid can be a good first step. Initial first aid to a traumatic injury includes the famous RICE treatment: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation of the joint. If the joint pain and function is not improving after a week of RICE treatment, seeing a doctor would be a good idea. Orthopedists are the best doctors to see for traumatic joint injury. Sometimes the doctor can give you ways to speed up your recovery or give you specific treatments to help the joint heal. Remember, proper care of joint trauma initially can help to prevent post-traumatic arthritis in the future.
- Loss of Function: Every joint has a specific function based on range of motion and stability. If a joint has a reduction in range of motion and/or stability, it is not going to do its job very well. For example, walking is difficult if the knee does not bend or the ankle cannot support weight. The inability for a joint to function is a good reason to see a joint specialist. Regaining function can be critical to quality of life and safety.
- Multi-joint pain: Wide-spread joint inflammation can indicate that a more systemic problem is lurking. Gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and Lymes Disease are just a few possibilities to keep in mind. Early detection of these problems can help to prevent joint destruction and permanent joint deformity. Although a primary care provider can initially help to detect these systemic problems; a specialist has a better chance to not only discover, but also treat these problems quickly.
- Associated Symptoms: Sometimes joint pain is accompanied by other symptoms like fevers, chills, night sweats, and weight loss. If you have any of these “red flags”, see a doctor as soon as possible because a serious, potentially limb or life threatening problem might exist.
- Family History: Some joint problems do run in the family like rheumatoid arthritis or Marfan syndrome. A family trend is not to be ignored and should be addressed by a specialist if only to confirm a genetic link. As new gene therapies become available, this point will become more and more critical to proper care.
Once you decide to see a doctor, who are you going to see? Your family doctor can help with routine joint problems, but maybe you have one of the special circumstances just listed. In that case, you should find a joint specialist. You might have to travel, but a little extra gas is worth the price in order to have a fully functional pain-free joint. An orthopedic surgeon is usually pretty easy to find and a good choice for trauma related joint problems. Like any profession, you should try to find the most reputable professional. Some orthopedic surgeons sub-specialize into a specific region of the body or even a joint. Hand surgeons see not just hand problems but also elbow and shoulder problems. Foot specialists are considered foot and ankle specialists. There are spine specialists, knee specialists, and hip specialists as well. Every joint in the body is covered by some orthopedist or another. Other specialists to consider are the rheumatologist and physiatrists who also have a great deal of knowledge about joint conditions and joint function. The choice is yours (or your insurance company’s). The important step is to know when to see a joint specialist and the relief will follow.