Acute Pain: Should You Go to the ER?
Acute pain occurs abruptly and is a physical symptom of an injury, such as an ankle sprain, or an infection, such as strep throat. Although it doesn’t typically last long, it can be quite severe and uncomfortable, leading patients to seek relief quickly.
But should that pain relief be sought in the emergency room? Here’s how to assess whether to visit an ER for acute pain.
How Patients Are Prioritized in the ER
Patients at the ER are triaged when they arrive based on the severity of their condition. For example, someone who has had life-threatening physical trauma, or is having a heart attack or stroke, will be seen sooner than someone who is having back pain.
Although your pain may feel like an emergency to you, if you’re not experiencing urgent or life-threatening symptoms, you may have to wait a while to see a doctor. If the ER is particularly busy, you could wait several hours for treatment.
When to Consider Urgent Care
The emergency room should be used for true emergencies whenever possible; otherwise, it may be beneficial to go to urgent care instead. Urgent care facilities can provide care for walk-in patients with minor injuries or illnesses. Because the conditions treated there aren’t as complex, patients are often seen more quickly than in an emergency room. Many urgent care facilities can provide tests such as X-rays or a rapid strep test. If the physician there finds that you need more intensive care, you’ll be transferred to a nearby hospital.
An urgent care clinic is a good option to consider if your physician’s office is unable to schedule an appointment with you right away. Urgent care physicians may recommend that you schedule an appointment for follow-up treatment with your primary care physician.
What to Expect From the ER
If you do go to the ER seeking relief from pain, it’s important that you describe your symptoms to the best of your ability. Be specific about when the pain started and what caused it, where in your body you’re experiencing it, and whether the severity varies based on physical activity. This will help ensure that you’re given the care and treatment you need.
However, it is important to keep in mind that some health care providers, including emergency room doctors, are no longer prescribing opioids for pain treatment. According to an article in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, pharmacologic treatment of acute pain conditions should begin with a nonopioid treatment, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Other approaches may include ice or heat treatment, recommendations for physical activity, and relaxation techniques.
What About Chronic Pain?
Acute pain can become chronic pain if left untreated or undertreated. According to a study in Pain Research and Management, the emergency department is not considered an appropriate setting for chronic pain treatment, and many emergency room visits for chronic conditions can be prevented with early intervention and management.
The study stated that the most common reason patients visited the ER was an inability to cope with their pain, and that many patients were interested in other methods to manage their pain. The researchers concluded that it would be beneficial to explore options such as referring patients to a pain clinic or having a health professional better explain the pain condition.
Although pain is one of the most common reasons patients go to the ER, it may not always be the right place to seek care. If you are having a true medical emergency, call 911 or go to straight to an emergency room to get the care you need. But if your condition is not life-threatening, try an urgent care facility first for quicker care.