If you’ve ever lived with joint pain for even a short period of time, you know it can be excruciating and significantly impact your daily quality of life. Treatment ranges from self-care and physical therapy to medication and surgery in the most serious cases.
According to research published by the United States Joint and Bone Initiative, more than 63 million Americans (one in four people) reported chronic joint pain in 2012, with its occurrence increasing with age and peaking in the 65- to 74-year-old age group. Around 40 million of those with joint pain experience knee pain, making it the most frequently cited, followed by shoulder pain (18.7 million people) and hip pain (15.3 million people).
Women report chronic joint pain at a higher rate than men, except for shoulder pain. People of all races experience joint pain at similar rates, apart from Asians, who report lower joint pain rates than other groups.
Many people attempt to suffer through joint pain by using ice or heat, over-the-counter pain relievers and/or braces at home, but when is it time to go see a physician?
We talked to Venkat Rapuri, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial, about his suggested criteria for a doctor visit.
“If severe joint pain is associated with an injury or trauma, a person should see a doctor right away or go to the nearest emergency room,” he explains. “However, if the pain is tolerable/minor and he is able to walk around, then regardless of age, best practice would be to try to rest the joint, ice and elevate it, and take the over-the-counter medications. If this does not control the pain over a period of a day or two, it is best not to procrastinate too long to see a physician.
“My advice would be to see a doctor at that point to rule out joint, ligament or meniscal injuries. These types of injuries are seen more in the younger patient population and may sometimes require further investigations, including MRI scans, before surgery is considered.”
A person’s age and the chronicity of their joint pain can also influence the necessity of medical care.
“The older population (50+ years of age) may have chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, gouty arthritis or pseudo-gout, which could lead to pain in the joints,” Rapuri explains. “Oftentimes such pain may take more than a week or two before it settles down, and it has a higher chance of relapsing.
“Seeking a medical or specialist’s opinion often may mean the difference between a simple procedure such as a partial joint replacement versus a total joint replacement surgery. It could also mean that other non-operative options such as hyaluronic acid injections, platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections and stem cell injections might still be an option before considering surgery.”
Chronic conditions ignored without medical intervention can lead to more serious surgical procedures later on, or even the inability to perform surgery.
“If these conditions are neglected for longer periods of time, it often means that the arthritis might have progressed to the point of requiring a total knee replacement surgery, due often due to the fact that non-operative measures such as injections may not working for them any longer. One should also consider their general health and try to seek care before the general health deteriorates, making them a non-surgical candidate down the line.”
If a person has experienced an injury/trauma or has continual joint pain that doesn’t improve with self-care, Rapuri recommends seeing a specialist for the most up-to-date treatment plans.
“Medicine has become very specialized these days and therefore the treatments have also become exclusively specialized,” he explains. “Patients often benefit from seeing a specialist, as they will receive first-hand information about the latest treatment options available to them, rather than generic joint-pain treatments.
“Finally, remember to eat healthy, keep extra weight off, exercise regularly and play sports to keep the joints moving. The old adage of ‘use it or lose it’ applies to joints as well.”