Painful joints: Self-care or seek professional assistance?


If your arm goes numb and your speech is slurred, you know you need to seek immediate medical attention. When you nick yourself shaving, you know you can deal with it yourself. But for the vast number of maladies in between, it can be difficult to know when to go to the doctor and when to deal with it on your own.

One of the most difficult situations in which you need to make the “home care vs. professional care” decision may be when something affects your joints.

The joints do some important work for the human body, and figuring out when things will get better on their own and when you may have a more serious problem is not easy.

When to seek help

William Ungureit, clinical director of the physician assistant training program at South University in Tampa, Fla., said there are some important signs that will tell you when to seek professional care.

“If the joint is warm to the touch and swollen, seek immediate help,” Ungureit said. “Those are signs of a possible infection, something that won’t get better on its own.”

Likewise, if you know that the joint pain is the result of an injury such as a fall, put an ice pack on the injury and seek help right away. This type of injury will usually be accompanied by swelling and the inability to bear weight.

Otherwise, painful joints often can be treated at home with over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium. And what about ice and heat?

“Cold therapy (ice) can be used for chronic injuries, such as pain after running,” Ungureit said. “Heat therapy is recommended for injuries that have no inflammation or swelling. Heat is ideal for sore, stiff, nagging muscle or joint pain.”

If you decide to treat the pain at home, you still need to see your primary care physician if the pain lasts more than two weeks. Your physician may offer prescription pain relievers or other treatment.

Chronic joint pain

Treatment for chronic joint pain may be more involved, according to Ungureit.

“Non-inflammatory joint pain usually signifies osteoarthritis, which is caused by trauma to the joint or degeneration of the joint tissue in weight-bearing joints,” he said.

That means the knee, hip and spinal joints.

According to the U.S. Bone and Joint Initiative, a movement sanctioned by the World Health Organization, one in five Americans has some form of arthritis. And contrary to the perception that arthritis is a disease of the elderly, more than half of those with arthritis are under the age of 65.

There is no cure for osteo­arthritis, but it can be managed with pain killers, physical therapy, steroid injections such as cortisone, or other injections to help lubricate the joint.

As a last resort, surgery to realign or completely replace a joint may be an option. Complete joint replacement is now available for the knee, shoulder, hip and ankle.

Motion is lotion

Although you can’t prevent osteoarthritis, you can do things to help lessen its onset and its painful effects.

“Losing weight and exercising regularly are great ways to combat osteoarthritis,” Ungureit said. “When it comes to joints, we say ‘motion is lotion.’ Drop­ping five or 10 pounds may not seem like much, but five pounds per step adds up fairly quickly on your joints.”

What about herbal supplements and other alternative treatments for joint pain? Ungureit said there’s nothing wrong with trying them, but make sure you tell your doctor which ones you are thinking about taking, since some supplements can interfere with other medications.

So while you may not need to consult your doctor for every ache, there are some serious signs to look for, and some effective steps that both you and your doctor can take to help relieve those painful joints.


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