Image this scenario:
Your child is playing in a sporting event on Saturday afternoon. She gets hurts after falling to the ground. She is not able to continue playing and is complaining of pain in the wrist. It's hard for her to make a fist or squeeze anything and the wrist is slightly swollen.
What do you do?
After applying ice and giving her some Motrin or Tylenol, you have to decide what the next step is.
There is not right answer to this question and everyone has a different tolerance for pain so you have to make decision based on your individual circumstances and comfort level. But I will give you a quick overview of what you are likely to encounter with each of these options.
Wait and See
Sometimes the expense and hassle of going to the ER or urgent care clinic just doesn't seem worth it. If the pain is not severe and there is no bleeding or obvious deformity, it is reasonable to take a more cautious Wait & See approach. If the hand and fingers more, or if a leg injury is the issue then if the injury does not prevent weight bearing, it is probably okay to see how things go over the next 24 hours.
Ice, anti-inflammatory medication (Advil, Motrin, Ibuprofen, Aleve), and Tylenol are fine to use to reduce the pain. Rest for 24 hours. A splint may provide pain relief and limit unwanted motion at the injury site.
If symptoms aren't improving after a day or two, it is best to get the injury evaluated, either by your primary care doctor, or orthopedic specialist, or an urgent care clinic.
What about going straight to the urgent care clinic?
Urgent care clinics usually have extended hours over a regular physician's office (later into the evening and open on weekends) but they are not usually open 24 hours a day. If they are open, you can usually get seen without an appointment, though it may take an hour or two to be seen if they are busy.
Most urgent care clinics are staffed by a combination of nurse practitioners, physician's assistants, and physicians of a variety of backgrounds. Some docs may be emergency medicine trained, others may be family practice or cardiology. I even know an OB/Gyn that works part-time in an urgent care clinic. They see a wide variety of problems so there is a need for all of these specialists. But that also means you might see someone that is more experienced with musculoskeletal injuries, or someone with little experience.
X-rays are typically done as part of the evaluation and obvious injuries are recognized. A splint or brace is often applied and possibly a prescription for a few days of pain medication may be provided. Follow up care with an orthopedic specialist is recommended if an obvious injury is noted, or if symptoms continue for more than a few days.
When is the ER the right choice?
There are a few services available at the ER that you might need.
The reality of the situation is this: