If you’re experiencing pain in any joint—your knee, ankle, shoulder, hip, etc.—you need to know how to best treat it at home. It’s also important to know when it’s time to see a doctor.
Each day at Orthopaedic Associates, I help patients with joint pain. In most cases, it’s been going on for a while and the patient or caregiver has been trying to manage it for some time.
Below are tips for managing your symptoms at home. I also give guidance on when it’s time to see one of our experts.
Chronic joint pain vs. Acute joint pain
Chronic joint pain is something that’s been nagging for months to years. It has a predictable pattern, such as painful in the morning, after standing on your feet all day, etc.
Acute joint pain is from something sudden. For example, you’re playing a sport and you feel a “pop” or tearing feeling. Or acute injuries can result for a fall or other accident.
RICE treatment, medications at home
The methods below can be relevant and helpful for managing both types of pain at home, as nearly all joint pain benefits from the RICE method of treatment.
RICE is an acronym standing for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. Each part helps in a different way.
Also, some consider the “I” to “anti-inflammatory medications.” Anti-inflammatory medications not only reduce pain, but can help reduce the body’s inflammatory response to injury or irritation.
The most common OTC anti-inflammatory medication is ibuprofen, under brand names such as Advil and Motrin. Naproxen (brand name Aleve) is also an OTC anti-inflammatory medication.
Naproxen is typically taken twice per day, and ibuprofen is taken up to 4 times per day. Both work to reduce pain and address inflammation. Trying them for 7-10 days (in addition to other RICE methods) often works to reduce joint pain.
Also, acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) helps treat pain, but doesn’t work to minimize inflammation. However, especially in combination with naproxen or ibuprofen, it can help with pain control. It’s important to avoid any alcohol while taking acetaminophen.
If you find that you’re taking pain medication for a length of time, or you are at risk for stomach or kidney problems or other side effects, you should check with your primary care doctor.
When to see a doctor
Overall, if RICE and OTC medications don’t seem to help, it’s time to see a doctor.
It’s also time to see doctor when you experience the following:
If you’re having these symptoms, you should see your primary care doctor. However, you can also visit a Deaconess Urgent Care or the Orthopaedic Associates Walk-In Urgent Care.
Visiting a doctor or other provider for severe or worsening joint pain can lead to a variety of treatment options, depending on the cause and type of pain.
Tips for using ice and heat
I want to give some tips on effective use of ice for the most benefit.
Now let’s talk about using heat. Some people report that using a heating pad can help with joint pain before going shopping, golfing, or other types of activity. With chronic joint pain, sometimes applying heat can help “loosen up” the joint and surrounding muscles. A few minutes with a heating pad or similar heat can help reduce pain during activity. I would still recommend icing afterwards to help with inflammation and swelling.
Note: For acute joint pain, such as from an injury (an ankle sprain is a good example), heat can increase swelling and inflammation, so avoid heat for the first 48 hours after an injury.