How do you know when it’s time to see a hand specialist?

Life is busy. Between work, school, family life, personal life, routines and hobbies, we all have a lot going on, and we don’t always have the time to prioritize our health. Sometimes we know when an injury is an emergency and sometimes we don’t. Hopefully, this article will help you decide when it’s the right time to schedule an appointment with a hand doctor.

When is it appropriate to go to the ER for a hand problem?

Urgent and emergent conditions should be presented to the ER or an urgent care right away to obtain the fastest treatment, which could help prevent further damage. Some of the types of injuries that we would consider emergent include:

  • If you suspect (or know) that your hand, wrist or forearm is broken. This could be severe pain in the area, deep bruising and swelling, inability to move the hand or arm and/or indicated by a bone displacement or deformity.
  • Lacerations (cuts) that would require stitches and/or caused damage to nerves and tendons. These could be long or short but deep cuts with heavy and continuous bleeding and possible changes in sensation or function to your hand.
  • Hand or finger amputations or crush injuries.
  • Signs of infection, including redness, swelling, fever, skin that is warm to the touch and soreness
  • Numbness that comes on quickly and does not go away

What kinds of conditions are non-emergent?

Not all hand issues warrant an expensive trip to the ER. Some of the most common, non-emergent hand and upper extremity issues include:

  • Numbness that goes comes and goes, particularly if it occurs at the same time of day or after certain activities.
  • Generalized stiffness or weakness in the hand that may or may not affect work and other activities.
  • Tendon issues – symptoms can include moderate pain and swelling, a bump on the tendon, weakness and/or loss of range of motion.
  • Fingernail issues, cysts or other finger issues, like locking fingers.
  • Miscellaneous hand pain that is tolerable.

How long should I wait to make an appointment for a hand problem?

If you know that your hand problem isn’t an emergency, you may be wondering how long do you should “wait and see” before deciding to consult a physician? While every patient and condition is different, there are some tell signs that it might be time to see a doctor:

  • Consistent pain or sensations of numbness lasting longer than 2-4 weeks and isn’t getting better, even with taking conservative measures like rest, icing and taking anti-inflammatory medication.
  • For traumatic injuries, especially if you suspect some type of fracture, it is better to be seen sooner than later. We recommend that you make an appointment within a week following a traumatic injury if there is persistent swelling, pain, brushing and limited range of motion in the affected area.

Is it possible to wait too long to seek treatment?

While there isn’t always a need to rush to a doctor, there is such a thing as waiting too long. Waiting on an urgent or non-emergent condition for too long could lead to additional issues that otherwise would be avoided. Delaying treatment could potentially increase your risk for surgery (or a more complex surgery), lead to an infection, increase the risk of poor treatment outcomes or could lead to permanent damage and lasting issues.

In summary…

In any severe case, it is best to call 9-1-1 or report to the nearest emergency room for immediate treatment. If it is not an emergency, give it a rest for a few weeks and see if it gets better. Most of the time, it will. If it doesn’t, come talk to one of our hand surgeons!

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Hand Surgery

Orthopedics/ Sports Medicine and Spine

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