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When You Should See a Doctor About Joint Pain

When You Should See a Doctor About Joint Pain

Your knee started feeling funny after last weekend’s tennis match. But now it’s Thursday and it still hurts. Time to make an appointment with your doctor? Find out the telltale signs.

Whether it’s knee pain, a strange finger cramp or a swollen elbow, joint pain can range from mildly annoying to completely debilitating. But it’s difficult to know when you should make an appointment with your doctor.

As a rule of thumb, you should see your doctor immediately if your joint pain was caused by an injury (like landing hard after trying to nail your opponent’s ace). Other reasons to see your doctor include:

  • You’re in a large amount of pain
  • You can’t move the joint
  • It hurts to put weight on the joint
  • The joint swells suddenly
  • The joint is deformed

If your joint pain wasn’t caused by an injury, make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • Your joint pain, stiffness and/or swelling lasts three days or more
  • You have several flare-ups of joint symptoms within one month

According to Donald B. Longjohn, MD, assistant professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery at the USC Department of Orthopaedic Surgery of Keck School of Medicine, whether you should go to the doctor for joint pain also depends on your age and activity level.

“If a younger person playing sports has a serious injury that leads to a deformity or extreme pain, definitely go to an emergency room,” Dr. Longjohn said. “If it’s a simple sprain, twist or you pulled something, or if pain persists or swells or worsens despite resting and icing, then please get that checked out.”

“If it’s not an obvious injury but perhaps you ‘overdid’ it playing golf, or basketball — perhaps you twisted your knee a little bit and after a week or so it stops you from playing the sport the way you’re used to — or if you’ve done this before and it’s causing you problems, then you should get that checked out.”

If your joint pain is mild and infrequent, it’s OK to wait and bring it up at your next annual check up.

It’s important to see your doctor to get a correct diagnosis, as joint pain has a range of causes including dislocation, psoriatic arthritis, tendinitis, lupus and more. Arthritis is actually an umbrella term that covers more than 100 diseases and conditions, and there are nearly as many treatments, depending on which version you may actually have.

Some types of arthritis should be treated immediately to prevent them from worsening or causing permanent damage, while others will improve with simple lifestyle adjustments. Because only your doctor can make the correct diagnosis, don’t be afraid to talk to him or her about any joint pain you are experiencing.

“If you’re worried about it, you should call or visit,” Dr. Longjohn said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry. The only foolish question is the one not asked.”

If you are local to Southern California and are in search of an orthopaedic surgeon, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit to schedule an appointment.

By: Anne Fritz

Keck Medicine of USC is the University of Southern California’s medical enterprise, one of only two university-owned academic medical centers in the Los Angeles area.