When Do I Need to Go to the ER?

When you are sick or injured, you usually have three options: the doctor’s office, urgent care, or the emergency room. Knowing the function and costs of each option will help you make intelligent decisions about your health—especially when you’re in pain or sick.

Many people visit the emergency room when they actually only require urgent care. Sprained ankles, back pain, cold symptoms, and other serious, but non-emergency situations are best treated at an urgent care center. Urgent care provides medical care that your doctor would provide, but at more flexible hours. When your doctor is unavailable and you cannot wait until the morning, urgent care is your best bet.

Rules of Thumb for Emergency Medicine

A good rule of thumb for emergency rooms is this—go for anything that could potentially result in a disability or life-threatening condition. Certain conditions are red flags that should always be treated immediately at an emergency room. While most aches and pains can be treated by urgent care professionals, there are certain pains to watch out for.

You should always visit an emergency room if you experience the following:

  • Bone fractures
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain / pressure
  • Blood or stool in urine
  • Sudden, severe headaches
  • Intense pain in small area

According to Ryan Stanton, a board certified emergency physician, another good rule of thumb for visiting the emergency room is when “what’s supposed to be on the inside is on the outside, or what’s supposed to be on the outside is on the inside.” Essentially, any visible tissues that are normally not visible should be treated with more than a bandage or some ice.

When it comes to pain, dull aches and broad pain are usually a sign of muscle fatigue or stiffness. The more specific or localized the pain, however, the more likely the need for emergency care. For example, a stomachache will hardly require emergency care in every situation. However, if the pain is sharp and limited to a spot in the lower side of your abdomen, that is a major red flag.

Using these principles, you can more confidently head to the emergency room, knowing that you will need the level of care that ER medical professionals provide. If you experience any of these signs, do not hesitate to drive to your nearest hospital, or call 911 for an ambulance if you are unable to drive.

This article contains general information about medical conditions and treatments. The information is not advice and should not be treated as such. The information is not intended to replace the advice or diagnosis of a physician.

If you have any specific questions about any medical matter you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.