Orthopaedic injury? Here’s what to know – and when to seek help
A medical subspecialty that focuses on injuries and disorders of the bones and joints, orthopaedics covers a wide range of care that includes casting, physical therapy, injections, joint replacements and restorative surgery.
How common are orthopaedic injuries?
As an orthopaedic surgeon for GBMC Health Partners - Orthopaedics and its walk-in clinic, Dr. Jamie Johnston treats trauma to wrists, ankles, elbows and knees, often stemming from one of two sources — falls or sports.
“Orthopaedic injuries are definitely seasonal,” he says. “During icy weather, we’ll see a lot of wrist and ankle fractures, and also in late summer and early fall when people are getting back into sports leagues.”
Who’s at risk for orthopaedic problems?
Bones and joints age along with the rest of the body, putting older adults (especially postmenopausal women) at higher risk for injury.
“As women lose estrogen, their bone quality deteriorates fairly rapidly,” Johnston says. “The area around the joints tends to weaken as well, contributing to wrist fractures, spine compression fractures and hip fractures.”
The use of certain medications that may entail side effects like dizziness or vision problems also increases risks of falling. However, orthopaedic injuries don't only affect an older population. Younger men and women can just as easily find themselves dealing with a strain, sprain or fracture if they overdo exercise or physical activity.
When to seek help
If you’ve sustained an orthopaedic injury, you’ll likely know right away how bad it is by the amount of pain you’re experiencing. With fractures and dislocations, you may actually hear or feel the bone snap or pop out of place. Other symptoms such as swelling, inflammation, bruising and stiffening of the joint can sometimes mimic other health conditions, which Dr. Johnston says is important to get checked out.
“If your injury seems to be getting better over the course of a week or so with RICE measures (rest, ice, compression and elevation) and you can manage your pain with over-the-counter medications, you probably don’t need to see an orthopaedic surgeon,” he notes. “But if it’s getting worse, you can’t put weight on it or you have mechanical symptoms like painful catching or locking, you should make an appointment or visit a walk-in clinic. Going to the ER is a safer choice for more serious injuries such as motor vehicle accidents or severe soft tissue injuries”
The standard evaluation process for orthopaedic injuries involves taking a thorough medical history, determining how much energy was involved in the injury, and possibly ordering X-rays or an MRI. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, most injuries will begin to heal within a couple weeks, recovering completely by six to eight weeks.
When in doubt, it never hurts to get a professional opinion from an orthopaedic specialist.
“We can determine how to best handle your recovery and give you a road map about what to expect,” Johnston points out. “We see a lot of parents with injured kids who want to know if they’ll have to miss their family vacations, and older people who may need advice on whether to go to a rehab facility or arrange in-home help. In other cases, we’re simply able to offer reassurance that you’re doing all the right things and healing appropriately.”
Dr. Johnston recommends exercising with guidance from a coach or trainer along with these precautions to reduce the risk of orthopaedic injuries.
“Don’t try to ramp up too quickly and risk hurting yourself,” he says. “Low-impact activities like biking, swimming and walking are best for your joints. Also, make sure you get enough vitamin D and avoid smoking and heavy alcohol consumption.”