With the cost of visiting the emergency room escalating, emergency rooms should be empty. The reality is that many people who at one time had health care insurance now use the emergency room as their primary access point to medical care. Emergency room nurses and paramedics prioritize patients according to their symptoms to help ensure that the most seriously ill patients get treatment first. With the large number of emergency room visits each year, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that fewer than 20% of patients who come to the ER get treatment within 15 minutes of arrival.
So what are the most common ailments that trigger a trip to the emergency room?
Headaches: Surveys of emergency rooms around the nation reveal that headaches, more than any other chief complaint, send patients to the Emergency Room. Headaches can be chronic or acute, but rarely do they signal the signs of serious medical illness. Why are headaches such a pain? As schools teach in RN programs (Registered Nurse Programs), headaches are often accompanied by other symptoms (like nausea or vomiting) that make them seem worse than they actually are. Headaches that are accompanied by nausea, vomiting, head trauma, dizziness, slurred speech, paralysis or partial paralysis on one or both sides of the body, or blurred vision could be symptoms of something more serious and should get checked out right away.
Foreign Objects: Most foreign object complaints arise as the result of ingesting something that shouldn’t have been eaten. The rule of thumb is that small objects – those less than 3/4th of an inch in diameter will probably make it through the digestive system without event. Objects larger than that could pose a problem. Another factor to consider is what’s been swallowed. Certain objects, like pennies or other coins, illicit drugs, or sharp objects that could become stuck or puncture soft tissue need a closer examination. Objects that don’t make it into the digestive tract – like nails, knives, pins, and the like – may get stuck in other places. As a general rule, if you’ve been punctured by something, don’t remove it. Instead, go to the ER with the object in place and let the doctors there take it out.
Skin Infections: Infections can quickly become large and grow out of control. When presented in the ER with skin infections, doctors try to drain, clean and treat the infected area and determine the cause of the infection. Antibiotic pills, ointments or even IV preparations may be used to try to control the infection and limit it’s spread. Some highly resistant infections (MRSA) are beginning to show up in emergency rooms and require more intensive medical treatment.
Back Pain: Back pain can be chronic or acute. In acute conditions, it’s usually the result of strain, kidney stones or accidental injury. As a chronic condition, it could signal deterioration or herniation of the cervical (neck) or lumbar (lower back) discs. Rarely, it can be a sign of head or neck cancer.
Cuts, Bumps, and Bruises: The fifth most-common reason to visit the ER includes the standard injuries that you’d expect. Deep cuts, contusions, and head trauma (mostly from motor vehicle accidents) send about 2.5 million Americans to the ER each year. Most cuts are accidental and result from mishandling knives or broken glass, or occur when glass is broken accidentally.
Other common reasons that people visited the emergency room, but that didn’t make the top 5? Upper respiratory infections, sprains and broken bones, toothaches, abdominal pain and chest pain. ER doctors and nurses alike agree that many of these patients would benefit from a trip to an urgent care facility, rather than a trip to the ER.
Symptoms that shouldn’t be ignored? Chest pain, deep cuts, seizures, trouble breathing and high fevers.