It's normal to have minor joint pain from time to time. Whether it's an achy knee, a sore shoulder or some other nagging body part, most of the time the pain goes away on its own or gets better after a day of rest, ice and elevation. But sometimes joint pain hangs around, which may mean a trip to the doctor's office.
When to see a doctor
You should see a doctor if your joint pain is severe, if it doesn’t subside after five or six days, or if the joint locks, catches or gives way. Additionally, you should see a doctor if you are experiencing a fever, chills or night sweats, or if the joint is red, hot or very swollen.
And it’s always better to see a doctor sooner rather than later so that you can make sure joint pain does not recur. For example, osteoarthritis of the knee can start off with mild achiness that comes and goes. The cycle will repeat itself many times before the pain gets really bad, but if you take the first pain as a warning sign, get diagnosed early and get involved with the right kinds of exercises, then you very well may be able to save yourself future problems with your knees.
Who to see
Several types of healthcare professionals are qualified to diagnose and treat joint pain. You may want to start with your internal medicine doctor, who may be comfortable treating your initial pain and referring you to physical therapy in case you need it. Other doctors who treat joint pain include:
- Rheumatologists, who specialize in joint diseases like arthritis
- Orthopedists, who specialize in surgical treatments
- Physiatrists (rehabilitation physicians), who specialize in non-surgical treatments
What to expect
When you see a joint pain specialist, the doctor will ask about your full medical history, including your current pain problem. The doctor will also conduct a physical exam to see how your joint moves, but the information you provide is sometimes even more telling. Most joint pain specialists will ask you questions like:
- When and how did the pain start?
- What makes the pain better or worse?
- What have you tried so far to make the pain go away?
- How severe is the pain?
- Does the joint feel like it locks, catches or gives way?
Your appointment will be more productive if you're prepared for those questions. Consider writing down your answers and bringing the notes with you.
Before you leave the office, you should expect to have a detailed conversion with your doctor about any recommended tests or treatments, which may include exercise or medication.
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