Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. But it doesn’t always tell you if you need medical treatment.
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So when pain develops in your hand, wrist or elbow, how do you know whether to treat it at home or see a doctor?
Orthopedic surgeon William Seitz, Jr., MD, who specializes in upper extremity problems, says if something is seriously wrong, you’ll know it.
A wrist fracture, for instance, will cause pain you can’t ignore. “When the pain is so bad you can’t move past it, call your doctor or head to the emergency department,” he says.
If you don’t have that level of pain, then listen to your body. Take a moment to consider why you might be feeling pain and what it can tell you.
Did pain come after a fall, or out of the blue?
In some cases, the reason for your pain is obvious — maybe you’ve worked in the garden for several hours or had a bad fall. In others, pain seems to come out of the blue.
“Also, the pain may be unrelated to your arm — for example, a pinched nerve in the neck can cause pain anywhere throughout the arm.”
Your activity level and the wear-and-tear on your body can also factor in, especially with joint pain, or various forms of tendonitis.
If you’re highly active, you can typically expect some pain in your joints as you get older. “Mileage plays a role,” says Dr. Seitz.
However, you shouldn’t expect pain just because you’re aging — it may never develop.
Assess your pain like an expert would
Health professionals determine which of their patients need urgent medical care using a process known as triage. You can apply the same technique at home.
Dr. Seitz suggests asking yourself these questions to decide what to do for your hand, wrist or elbow pain:
- Does it hurt if you press on it?
- Is it inflamed (reddened)?
- Is it swollen or stiff?
- How would you rate your pain on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 1 being minimal discomfort and 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever experienced)?
“If your answers to the first three questions are “yes,” or if your pain level is in the upper half of the pain scale (6 through 10), then it’s time to call the doctor,” says Dr. Seitz.
“If you answer “no” to the first three questions and rate your pain at a 1 through 3, you can start with treatment at home.”
DIY care for hand, wrist or elbow pain
If your symptoms aren’t serious, start by reducing the pain. Dr. Seitz suggests the following steps:
- Apply ice to the painful area (if new onset) or heat (if present more than a day).
- Take over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
- Use a stretchy elastic bandage or other compression device to wrap the painful or swollen area.
If you can tie your pain to overexertion, or if you think it stems from repetitive motion (such as tennis elbow), take a break from that activity. Give your body a rest.
What if your pain won’t go away?
Even tolerable pain may signal a more serious problem when it persists. If home treatment doesn’t seem to address the issue after two or three days, contact your doctor.
Provide as much information as possible about your activities and other pertinent factors, including which medications or supplements you’re taking.
Your doctor will help to identify the problem, even if it’s an underlying issue causing the persistent pain.
“Most processes that aren’t worrisome tend to run their course in a few days,” Dr. Seitz says. “Acute symptoms — such as severe swelling, redness, pain or deformity — may need more urgent evaluation and care.”
Ultimately, taking a few minutes to assess your pain may help you avoid an emergency room visit for situations that aren’t serious.