Do I Have to See a Doctor for This? A Look at Common Aches, Sprains & Pains

From stomach problems to earaches, we’ve all wondered if it’s wise to stay home and give your body a chance to heal—as opposed to paying the doctor a visit.

For those times when you find yourself asking, “Should I make an appointment for this?” we asked medical experts for their advice regarding some of the more common reasons that their patients schedule an office visit.

Before we share their suggestions, an important disclaimer: The purpose of this article isn’t to discourage anyone from seeking medical attention. All content within this article is for information purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

That being said, there are times that it’s just plain difficult to see a doctor, whether your general practitioner or a specialist. Depending on your coverage (or lack thereof), there’s cost to consider.

Even for those who are fully insured and can spare the cash for their copayment, finding space in your physician's immediate schedule might be impossible.

“The average appointment wait time is a staggering 72 days, according to a recent survey.”

Merritt Hawkins, a healthcare consulting firm, conducted a survey to determine the average time new patients have to wait to see a doctor in 15 metropolitan areas. In the survey, which focused on five medical specialties (cardiology, dermatology, family practice, obstetrics/gynecology, and orthopedic surgery), Merritt Hawkins found that getting an appointment often takes days or weeks:

  • The average appointment wait time to see a family physician ranged from a high of 66 days in Boston to a low of 5 days in Dallas.
  • The average appointment wait time to see an obstetrician/gynecologist ranged from a high of 46 days in Boston to a low of 10 days in Seattle.
  • The average appointment wait time to see a dermatologist ranged from a high of 72 days in Boston to a low of 16 days in Miami.
  • The average cumulative wait time to see a family physician in all 15 markets was 19.5 days, approximately the same as 20.3 days in 2009.

Why are Doctors So Busy?

In an interview with Everyday Health, George Lowe, MD, FACP, and medical director of Maryland Family Care, explained the problem:

“Most primary care doctors have their available timeslots pre-booked with chronic care patients who take longer to see: 20-30 minutes for a routine follow-up versus 10-15 minutes for straightforward cases like a sore throat or twisted ankle.”

Because patients suffering from straightforward cases such as a sore throat or twisted ankle are considered non-urgent, they often have the hardest time getting an appointment. However, there’s a potential silver lining to sitting out your sickness at home for a few days: avoiding antibiotics.

Why Antibiotics Should Be A Last Resort

“What would you say if we told you that each and every one of us are working together to create a kind of superbug that could affect hundreds of thousands of people? It’s actually happening right now—we’re in the process of creating a super bacterium.”

That’s the opening statement of the following clip explaining the long-term risks of taking antibiotics at the slightest hint of a bug. Packed full of information, and just under six minutes in length, we highly recommend that you give it a watch:

In short, the video explains that bacteria are both the oldest and smallest living things on our planet—meaning they’ve evolved to be masters of survival.

Before you fret, know that most bacteria are harmless to us. In fact, your body is host to trillions of bacteria, and they help you to survive. (NY Times just disclosed that even germs in the subway are harmless!)

However, overuse of antibiotics has increased the growth of antibiotic-resistant superbugs—which are responsible for the deaths of 23 thousand Americans every year.

If you’d like to learn more about the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Science Daily, FDA, and CNN are just a few of the credible sources with ample information on the topic.

At this point, you might be asking “Since too-frequent prescriptions are causing real problems, why are so many doctors still whipping out their prescription pads when you come in with a common cold?”

It Comes Down to Frequent Requests and Old Habits

According to CNN, people ask for antibiotics because they think that these drugs will make them feel better. The other side of the coin is that many doctors have been prescribing antibiotics in abundance for years—and are following old habits.

“Patients, too, may feel the same way and insist on proceeding with treatment. Convincing them otherwise can require lengthy discussions that many doctors don’t have the time for,” explains Dr. Kenneth B. Roberts, an associate professor of therapeutic radiology at Yale, in an interview with the NY Times.

According to Newsy Science, a combination of patient requests and physicians who are footloose and fancy-free with their prescription pads lead to 11 million unnecessary prescriptions per year.

So, What to Do When You Start to Feel an Ache or Pain?

In many cases you can help yourself with home remedies and rest, because a human body has plenty of self-repairing mechanisms, especially if you give it what it needs: rest, fluids, and healthy foods.

That being said, there are some ailments that can leave you questioning whether or not an immediate appointment is needed. We asked several medical professionals for their opinion on the urgency of three common causes for office visits: earaches, stomach problems, and sprains.

If You’re Experiencing Ear Aches and Upper Respiratory Discomfort

While kids are much more likely to get an ear infection (80% of children have one by the time they’re three years old), adults are also at risk. However, infections aren’t the only potential cause of earaches—congestion due to allergies can create a similar discomfort.

There are ways to tell the difference between allergies and infection when it comes to upper respiratory discomfort and ear aches. Signs of an infection include fever and body aches.

Ear infections generally last 7-10 days. Some doctors recommend waiting to see whether the infection clears up on its own, according to WebMD, but others worry that letting bacteria go untreated could cause more damage.

What are some benefits of seeking early treatment with antibiotics as opposed to letting an ear infection run its course? According to the above clip, seeing your doctor has two main benefits:

  • The ear ache will go away more quickly.
  • There’s a reduced chance of any serious complications.

However, it’s worth noting that studies have found no difference in hearing between patients who didn’t treat with antibiotics when tested three months after their infection.

Alternatively, allergies will last much longer, and will depend on the presence of the agent that is causing your allergy. Chronic sinusitis can be caused by fungi, so anyone using a humidifier can be making it worse (since higher humidity means a better breeding ground for fungi).

The bottom line on waiting out an earache? Be aware of your symptoms to better understand if you might be suffering from allergies or an ear infection. You should always see a doctor if symptoms don't improve after 7-10 days, or if you're getting new symptoms (such as a fever or muscle aches).

If You Suspect Food Poisoning

Gastroenteritis (food poisoning) is relatively common. Signs and symptoms may start within hours after eating the contaminated food—or they may begin days or even weeks later.

Sickness caused by food poisoning generally lasts from a few hours to several days, and is self-resolving in most cases. However, health experts warn that the severity of your symptoms can be a major red flag. Dehydration can happen very fast and severe food poisoning can be fatal.

According to the Mayo Clinic, most types of food poisoning cause one or more of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Watery diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Fever

Most cases of food poisoning can be treated at home by drinking plenty of fluids, resting, and taking probiotics. Activated charcoal can also help to relieve symptoms.

When to seek treatment for stomach problems and suspected food poisoning? Call your doctor immediately if:

  • You are experiencing severe diarrhea (large amounts of loose stool every one to two hours) that lasts longer than two days.
  • You are experiencing vomiting that lasts longer than one day.
  • You are pregnant and believe that you have been exposed to listeriosis or toxoplasmosis.
  • You have sudden, severe belly pain.

It’s important to note that dehydration resulting from food poisoning can be fatal. According to WebMD, you should call emergency services immediately if:

  • You have signs of severe dehydration including little or no urine; sunken eyes, no tears, and a dry mouth and tongue; fast breathing and heartbeat; feeling very dizzy or lightheaded; and not feeling or acting alert.
  • Your stool turns black with a consistency similar to tar— another sign that you're severely dehydrated and likely need IV fluids.
  • You think you may have food poisoning from a canned food and you have symptoms of botulism. These include blurred or double vision, trouble swallowing or breathing, and muscle weakness.

The bottom line on waiting out suspected food poisoning? Many cases of bacterial food poisoning are mild and pass in several days. But if diarrhea is severe, lasts longer than a week, or you start to show signs of severe dehydration, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor for advice.

If You Injured Your Ankle and Suspect a Break or Sprain

Ankle injuries are often thought of as a risk only for athletes. But you don't have to be playing sports to cause a painful turn or twist—something as simple as walking on an uneven surface can cause a painful, debilitating sprain.

Related: Common Sports Injuries: Your Guide to How They Happen & Best Ways to Prevent Them

Did you traumatize your ankle and can’t tell if it’s a sprain versus a break? While symptomatically these can be similar, there are some differences to help you identify the severity of your injury.

The following are signs of a fracture (break):

  • The presence of numbness.
  • Not being able to put any weight at all on the ankle.
  • An obvious sign like deformity or crookedness.
  • If you remember a cracking or popping sound.

If any of the above applies to your injury, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Still think it might be a sprain? Dr. Matt Tanneberg, a sports Chiropractor and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), recommended the following steps to help your ankle heal:

Immediately After Your Ankle Injury

Dr. Tanneberg cautions that if the trauma that caused the pain to the ankle happened from something severe such as a bad football tackle, fall while hiking, etc., then go get checked out by a medical professional immediately. In cases of severe trauma, the sooner you get checked out, the better.

If the trauma is not as severe, go through the RICE protocol as soon as possible:

  • Rest until the swelling and inflammation are cleared out of the affected area and the pain level has decreased. 
  • Ice the ankle itself, to help speed up the normal healing process and numb the pain.
  • Compress the ankle with kinesiology tape or a wrap to help stop pooling of inflammation, which will slow the healing.
  • Elevate the ankle when you are resting by propping it up on a pillow to let gravity assist in the recovery.

Two Weeks After Your Ankle Injury

Dr. Tannenberg notes that If your ankle is still in excruciating pain after one to two weeks of RICE, it’s time to seek medical attention:

“You need to closely monitor the progress of the pain and swelling. For typical ankle sprains, RICE should help alleviate the pain to some level after two weeks. If there is no change in the intensity of pain after that time period, then go see a medical professional.”

Four Weeks After Your Ankle Injury

If you go through the entire RICE process for four weeks, the pain and inflammation should be considerably better. The generic timetable you hear for soft tissue injuries, such as an ankle sprain, is four to six weeks. By the fourth week, you should notice a major improvement in how your ankle feels.

If the ankle has not made any progress after four weeks of diligent RICE? Dr. Tanneberg suggests that you should go see a medical professional for imaging to look for a possible fracture.

Tips on Getting to See Your Doctor Sooner

You might not be able to control when you get a doctor’s appointment, but there are things that may help speed up when you’re scheduled. Here are some tips:

  1. Convey urgency by emphasizing the more severe aspects of what you’re dealing with. Depending on your doctor’s availability, there’s a chance that they can squeeze you in sooner.
  2. Help your doctor understand the potential problem by providing thorough information. Do you have a history of ear infections or recently ate a questionable meal? Write down your symptoms and email them to your doctor’s office after calling for your appointment. The summary will help your doctor get up to speed sooner, and may even prompt an earlier appointment.
  3. If you need to see a specialist, ask your primary care doctor for a referral. Sometimes an established relationship between medical professionals means that they can make a call to possibly get you an earlier appointment. Additionally, your referring doctor can provide important medical information that is more detailed in justifying the need for an earlier appointment.
  4. Ask about appointments during less desirable times, including potential weekend or evening appointments. It’s also possible to ask the receptionist to call you, should something sooner open up.

Bottom Line: Practice Watchful Waiting

Watchful waiting is a period of time during which you observe your symptoms or condition without using medical treatment, in hopes that it will self-resolve, as many common illnesses will clear up on their own in several days.

While watchful waiting is what most of us do when we come down with a cold or the flu, and there are long-term benefits to holding off on requesting antibiotics, it’s only appropriate for certain ailments.

Remember, use your best judgment and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. If you’re unsure, it’s always a better to give your doctor a call—often, he or she can advise you on next steps for home treatment without requiring an office visit.

About Our Expert:

Dr. Tanneberg
Dr. Matt Tanneberg is a sports Chiropractor and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) in Phoenix, AZ. Dr. Tanneberg works with elite athletes and players from the NFL, MLB, NHL, USA Track and Field, NCAA and high school. He was named one of the Top 10 Chiropractors in Arizona for 2016 and is certified in the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), which are used by many of the major sports leagues as pre-training screens.