Living with Chronic Pain

When Is a Trip to the Emergency Room Warranted?


When living with chronic pain, it can be difficult to tell when a symptom is part of the chronic pain condition or when it may be something more serious. Living in constant pain can mask other symptoms that require emergency care. It can also make it difficult to decide when pain is severe enough to warrant emergency care.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when considering a trip to the emergency room.

  • Attempt to reach your primary care physician or pain specialist.
    Try getting in touch with your regular health care provider. They have your relevant medical history and may be able to determine if a trip to the emergency room is needed. If your regular healthcare team cannot be reached, seeking emergency care may be necessary.
  • Be aware of how current pain compares to baseline pain.
    If pain is extreme, to a level well beyond baseline pain, or if it is not responding to typical treatments, emergency care should be considered. Sudden, intense pain or pain in a new location can be a red flag of a potential new medical issue. Keeping track of pain levels over time helps establish a baseline for comparison.
  • Watch for abnormal symptoms.
    If pain is accompanied by abnormal or new symptoms, consider seeking immediate attention. For example, if chest pain occurs on a regular basis but other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea, or a cold sweat, suddenly develop, a trip to the emergency room is warranted. If chronic back pain is suddenly accompanied by loss of bowel or bladder function or numbness in the arms or legs, medical attention should be sought immediately.
  • Be prepared.
    Be prepared in the event that a trip to the emergency room is necessary. Keep an up-to-date list of medical conditions, medications, allergies, and physician contact information in an easily accessible location, such as a wallet, phone, or car. Having this information readily available reduces the stress that often develops when emergency medical care is required.
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