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Care for orthopaedic and sports injuries: IC or ER

By Susan J. White

Accidents happen, injuries happen. It’s almost inevitable, so then what? When dealing with pain or consequences from an injury how do you decide whether to seek treatment at an immediate care location or the emergency room?

Hallie Labrador, MD, sports medicine expert at NorthShore University HealthSystem, part of NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health, shares some important guidelines to direct to you to the right location.

Emergency care

“One of the biggest things to note is people who think they may have a blood clot, those who experience calf pain and swelling without an injury, should go to the Emergency Department,” said Dr. Labrador. An ultrasound is needed to determine whether there’s a blood clot, and immediate care clinics typically do not have that diagnostic capability.

Similarly if there is a bone poking out of the skin or a limb is pointing in the wrong direction it’s definitely time to go to the ED. For major fractures and dislocations like shoulder, ankle or elbow it’s beneficial to receive treatment in the ED where there are more anesthesia options to keep patients comfortable, explained Dr. Labrador.

Soccer player injured on the ground

An open wound with active bleeding is also an indication to head straight to the ED. If you are a recent joint replacement patient and are concerned you may have an infected joint—signs of an infection include redness, swelling, warm and painful to the touch — that is considered a medical emergency and the Emergency Department can test and begin treatment immediately. 

Immediate care

Conversely, sports injuries which are quite common in school-aged children whether on the playground or in a competition, are better cared for at an orthopaedic and spine immediate care clinic.

“We are experts in sports injuries and able to appropriately address and treat most sprains and strains, and offer guidance about when it’s safe to return to sport or modifications to activities if needed,” said Dr. Labrador.

NorthShore’s Orthopaedic & Spine Immediate Care locations are run by specially trained physicians, have X-ray equipment and everything needed for splints and casts, and can quickly assess and treat ankle and wrist sprains, common in both children and adults, she said.

Finger and hand injuries are also common after falls and should be looked at sooner rather than later by an orthopaedic specialist. “Hands are so important and not everything gets better with buddy taping. It’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Dr. Labrador who encourages patients to visit an orthopaedic sports medicine physician as soon as possible after a hand injury.

The Ortho & Spine IC teams work closely with surgeons and other specialists and can streamline further evaluation when necessary. They are also able to refer to physical or occupational therapy and recommend the best treatment plans for optimal outcomes and return to full activity.

As a general rule, an injury where you trip, fall or twist that results in significant pain, swelling and bruising, a loud pop or crack and/or trouble moving a joint or walking should be checked out as soon as possible and Ortho IC is a great way to do that.

But for chronic pain like knees that have been sore for months, or back pain that continues to flares up after working out, it’s better to make a scheduled appointment with an orthopaedic sports medicine specialist, as opposed to heading to immediate care, said Dr. Labrador.

Need immediate care for an injury? The experts at our Orthopaedic & Spine Immediate Care Centers provide care for sports injuries, as well as sprains, muscle strains and fractures. Learn more.

Learn more about emergency care at NorthShore University HealthSystem.

The team of experts at NorthShore Orthopaedic & Spine Institute offers world-class options close by to help you feel like yourself again. Learn more.