Joint pain? How to know when it’s time to see a doctor

Joint Health

by Casey Stuhlman, MD

Mar 16, 2023

Ah, those aching joints. Morning shoulder stiffness. Sore knees after a long day chasing kids. Weekend warrior hip pain. Sound familiar?

Joint pain is common, especially as we age or take up a new activity. While occasional aches or stiffness are usually nothing to worry about, persistent or worsening joint pain may signal a need for a doctor’s visit. And it’s not always easy to tell the difference.

Here’s what you need to know to alleviate minor discomfort at home and telltale signs from my experience as an orthopedic surgeon that it’s time to get your joint pain checked out.

What’s causing your joint pain?

Our joints serve as the vital connections where two or more bones meet. They provide support and allow us to move, bend and stretch our bodies in a wide range of motion—until burning, tenderness, stiffness or pain get in the way.  

Discomfort can come and go or feel constant, cropping up in our hips, knees, shoulders, feet or other joints for various reasons. Among them:

  • Age-related wear and tear
  • Injuries, such as broken bones or sprains
  • Overuse
  • Arthritis
  • Infection or an underlying medical condition

When to see a doctor for joint pain

It can be hard to know when it’s time to see a doctor and what you can manage at home. Get medical help immediately if your joint pain is injury-related and includes:

  • Joint deformity
  • Sudden swelling
  • Intense pain
  • Loss of motion

Otherwise, most minor joint aches and pains can be managed at home. Try the following:

Don’t let joint pain slow you down

If your joint pain interferes with routine daily living or quality of life—playing with your kids or grandchildren, trying a new activity, or disrupting your sleep and mood, for example—it’s essential to talk to a doctor.

You should also see a healthcare provider if you experience:

If you experience joint pain symptoms that last a few days and don’t improve with the self-care tips listed above, or you experience swelling, redness, or tenderness and warmth around the joint, it’s time to see a healthcare provider.

Depending on your health insurance, you may be able to make an appointment directly with an orthopedic specialist. You can also begin with your primary care provider, who can refer you to a specialist as needed.

When a patient comes to me with joint pain, I always start with a comprehensive medical history, evaluation and diagnostic imaging to pinpoint the source of the pain and rule out arthritis or an injury, such as a torn tendon or ligament.

It’s important to know that surgery is not your only option. Conservative treatments for general joint pain include:

  • Weight loss, if needed
  • Prescription or topical anti-inflammatories
  • Physical therapy
  • An unloaded or offloader brace for stability
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Platelet-rich plasma (PRP)

If noninvasive measures don’t help, your orthopedic specialist may recommend arthroscopic joint repair or joint replacement surgery.

Does joint pain mean you have arthritis?

A note about arthritis: While nearly one in four US adults will experience joint pain related to arthritis, not every swollen knee or stiff hip means you have the condition. Arthritis is an umbrella term for more than 100 diseases that affect the joints and their connective tissues.

Still, the two are often intertwined, with the aches of general joint pain frequently preceding arthritis’ hallmark signs of inflammation. In my practice, I often use the analogy of an ant mound: it may have been in your yard for months, but you don’t know it’s there until you stumble upon the dirt pile and are suddenly acutely aware of its presence. The same holds true for arthritis. The condition often brews in the background. You may chalk up those occasional aches and pain to age or a challenging workout until your inflammation can no longer compensate for the pain.

That’s where the diagnostic expertise of a joint specialist like an orthopedic surgeon, who is specially trained to address joint and bone disease, comes into play. Our goal—no matter the source of the pain—is to map out a treatment plan and recommended lifestyle changes to relieve your pain and get you back up and moving again.

Questions about your joint pain? Find an orthopedic expert near you.

About the Author

Casey Stuhlman, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Grapevine and Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Trophy Club. Dr. Stuhlman has extensive training in sports medicine, shoulder and elbow surgery, and joint replacement. His practice includes general orthopedic surgery, sports medicine, arthroscopy and arthroplasty of all major joints.

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