When Should You See a Doctor About Joint Pain?

Originally published July 3, 2017

Last updated April 29, 2024

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Your knee has been feeling funny for several days, but you’re not sure if you need to make an appointment with your doctor. Here are some telltale signs that it’s time to see a medical professional.

Whether it’s knee pain, a strange finger cramp or a swollen elbow, joint pain can range from mildly uncomfortable to completely debilitating. But it’s difficult to know when you should make an appointment with your doctor.

As a rule of thumb, you should see your doctor immediately, if your joint pain was caused by an injury. Other reasons to see your doctor include:

  • You’re in a large amount of pain.
  • You can’t move the joint.
  • It hurts to put weight on the joint.
  • The joint suddenly swells.
  • The joint is deformed.

If your joint pain wasn’t caused by an injury, make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • Your joint pain, stiffness and/or swelling lasts three days or more.
  • You have several flare-ups of joint symptoms within one month.

According to Donald B. Longjohn, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Keck Medicine of USC and assistant professor of clinical orthopedic surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, whether you should go to the doctor for joint pain also depends on your age and activity level.

“If a younger person playing sports has a serious injury that leads to a deformity or extreme pain, definitely go to an emergency room,” Longjohn says. “If it’s a simple sprain, twist or you pulled something, or if pain persists or swells or worsens despite resting and icing, then please get that checked out.”

“If it’s not an obvious injury but perhaps you overdid it playing golf or basketball — perhaps you twisted your knee a little bit and after a week or so it stops you from playing the sport the way you’re used to — or if you’ve done this before and it’s causing you problems, then you should get that checked out.”

If your joint pain is mild and infrequent, it’s OK to wait and bring it up at your next annual checkup.

It’s important to see your doctor to get a correct diagnosis, as joint pain has a range of causes, including dislocation, psoriatic arthritis, tendinitis, lupus and more. Arthritis is actually an umbrella term that covers more than 100 conditions, and there are nearly as many treatments, depending on which type of arthritis you may actually have.

Some types of arthritis should be treated immediately to prevent them from worsening or causing permanent damage, while others will improve with simple lifestyle adjustments. Be sure to alert your doctor if you’re experiencing any joint pain, since they can asses your symptoms and make a diagnosis.

“If you’re worried about it, you should call or visit,” Longjohn says. “It’s better to be safe than sorry. The only foolish question is the one not asked.”


Anne Fritz
Anne Fritz is a freelance health and lifestyle writer.