4 Times to See a Doctor for Arthritis Pain

When at-home treatment is not enough

Woman with neck pain

By: Scott Burg, DO

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If you live with arthritis pain, you’re probably familiar with at-home fixes such as ice and heat packs, stretching routines, pain relievers and simply putting your feet up and taking a break.

All of these can be helpful — but sometimes they’re just not enough. If any of the following four cases apply to you, seek the help of your primary care doctor or rheumatologist.

1. Conservative therapy doesn’t work after a week

If you have a minor flare-up of aches and pains, conservative home therapy often works well: Ice or heat as needed, over-the-counter pain relievers (as long as you don’t have any dangerous drug interactions — see below) and periods of rest, for example. But if your pain does not respond after a week, it’s worth a trip to the doctor’s office for a thorough checkup and diagnosis.

2. You have a “joint out of phase”

“Rest often goes a long way toward relief. But when this conservative approach fails, it may be a sign of a deeper problem.”

Scott Burg, DO

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Department of Rheumatologic and Immunologic Disease

You probably know your baseline of pain pretty well. You know you may have 15 to 20 minutes of stiffness in the morning, for example. But if you suddenly have a red-hot, swollen knee, wrist or other isolated joint — especially if that’s not typical for you — it may be cause for concern.

We call this a “joint out of phase” because it differs from your usual aches and pains. Excessive redness and swelling raise red flags because they often are signs of infection. Infections can be serious business, especially for patients with conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or Lupus who are taking drugs that weaken the immune system.

If this happens to you, especially if you have symptoms such as a fever, see your doctor. And do it in person, not by phone. A physical exam is crucial for identifying an infection, then treating it properly so it doesn’t spread.

3. Pain does not improve with rest

“Rest pain” is another sign your arthritis may need more aggressive treatment. Rest often goes a long way toward relief. But when this conservative approach fails, you may have a deeper problem.

If your pain doesn’t get better with rest, see a doctor. It may be time to consider medical treatment — including the possibility of surgery for severe back, hip or knee pain. In fact, most orthopedic surgeons won’t operate on a person unless they have rest pain; that’s how much of a red flag it is.

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4. You have arthritis pain along with other conditions

Many patients are dealing with a form of arthritis along with other conditions — GERD or stomach ulcers, for example. If you’re one of these patients, be especially careful with self-medication.

Here’s why: Many times drugs to treat pain and inflammation conflict with drugs to treat other conditions. For example, long-term use of non-steroidal antiinflammatories (NSAIDS) can make digestive issues such as ulcers worse, especially if you’re taking a proton pump inhibitor for heartburn or GERD. Likewise, many pain medications raise your risk levels if you heart disease and can be dangerous if you have kidney disease.

If you take multiple drugs for multiple conditions, check with a doctor before treating your arthritis on your own. Without proper guidance, adding more medications to the mix might do more harm than good.

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