When you think about emergency rooms, the dramatic, gurney-rolling scenes from TV and movies might flood your mind. But the truth is these portrayals overlook much of what typical ERs deal with regularly. Emergency services provide expert care to save lives, but they're also places people seek treatment for mysterious symptoms or when most doctors' offices are closed.
As we'll discuss, a few common reasons people venture to the emergency room might surprise you. Some reveal a bizarre side of the profession, while others represent the majority of cases seen in departments.
Because ER care varies worldwide, we'll focus more on cases in the United States. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logged approximately 124 million visits to the ER, with only 42 million of those being injury-related [source: CDC].
Although you might not associate some reasons on the list with visiting the ER, it's important to keep in mind the causes for illness and how people react to it differs greatly. If you believe you're experiencing a medical emergency, don't be afraid to call 911 and talk to an expert if you don't know what to do or need help. People can be taken to the ER by ambulances with paramedics or, in non-life-threatening cases, a friend or family member can drive the patient to the hospital.
So what are 10 common reasons to make a trip to the ER?
First, we'll look at a condition that typifies perceptions of emergency rooms. Read more on the following page.
We're all familiar with depictions of heart patients in the ER. In classic cases, trained emergency personnel will pick up defibrillators to jumpstart or regulate the patient's heartbeat. "Clear!" Bzzzzz!
Emergency room experts know how to deal with dire cardiac situations, but even more common than heart attacks are chest pains, which might be precursors or signs of other health problems.
Though chest pains are still common in ERs, some reports suggest they're declining while other conditions such as stomach pains are on the rise [source: Brophy Marcus].
Still, doctors want patients to be aware of other signs that might indicate a situation is life-threatening. "Pressure-like" or "burning" chest pain coinciding with nausea, sweating or shortness of breath may signify a dangerous situation requiring emergency medical attention [source: Howell].
Chest pains should be examined particularly if the patient has a history of other medical conditions such as diabetes or coronary heart disease. In the United States, heart disease, which may result in emergency cardiac situations, is the leading cause of death, with more than a half a million people dying each year from heart complications [source: CDC].
Still, chest pains are by no means a death sentence. Although it's better to err on the safe side by visiting the ER, many chest pain cases result from temporary discomfort associated with gastrointestinal flare-ups [source: Mayo Clinic Staff].
The next reason to visit the ER has increased in recent years. Keep reading to see if you or someone you know has required emergency care for this condition.
Abdominal pain is an increasingly common reason to make a trip to the ER [source: Brophy Marcus]. Usually extending beyond normal indigestion, abdominal pain can result from a slew of health complications including food poisoning, kidney stones, or more serious medical conditions or illnesses.
According to one government survey from 2007, abdominal pain was one of the leading reasons people visited emergency rooms [source: Niska et al.]. Before moving forward to treat patients with abdominal pain, doctors will try to find out if the pain stems from a health problem directly related to the digestive system or if it's a sign of problems in other areas of the body.
Poisoning is likely to contribute to abdominal pain cases as well, as it sends approximately 1,940 people to emergency departments each day in the United States [source: CDC]. Bacterial and viral infections, as well as organs not functioning properly, can give rise to abdominal pain, too.
People should seek emergency treatment if they're experiencing continual nausea or uncontrolled vomiting, experts say [source: American College of Emergency Physicians Foundation].
Up next: This mouth pain frequently sends people to the ER.
Tooth-related issues might not come to mind when you think about the ER, but they're surely presented to ER doctors [source: American College of Emergency Physicians Foundation]. Toothaches remain a common reason to pursue emergency treatment, especially at times when dentist offices are closed after-hours or during the weekends.
Often, patients come in with abscesses, or areas filled with pus, within teeth or in surrounding gum tissue. In situations in which the abscess can be reached, ER doctors will drain it and prescribe pain medications. For pain within teeth resulting from gradual tooth decay or sudden trauma to the tooth, doctors will be limited to giving medications to alleviate pain until patients can make it to the dentist.
Depending on the cost differences, urgent care might be a better option than emergency care. Urgent care centers are often open later than doctors' offices to treat non-life-threatening medical problems and are generally less expensive than a trip to the ER [source: Preidt].
Sprains and broken bones make emergency room appearances as well. Read more on the next page.
Sprains and Broken Bones
Sprains and broken bones can happen to anyone, regardless of health or age.
Sprains occur when ligaments attached to joints in the body are pushed to their limit or outright torn. Sometimes they happen alongside broken bones and can be caused by twisting an area of the body during movement or physical activity.
But not all sprains require ER care. Most can be deferred to urgent care, where doctors are equally equipped to treat patients and have imaging tools such as X-ray machines to rule out broken or fractured bones.
Broken bones, on the other hand, are more likely to require emergency care, especially if they pose risks to other systems in the body. For instance, a broken rib caused by a car wreck has the potential to puncture vital organs in the chest, whereas a broken toe might not pose such a risk and is a case more suitable for urgent care.
If you're experiencing consistent pain after receiving treatment for sprains or broken bones, it might be a good idea to receive urgent or emergency care to figure out why the area isn't healing properly.
Can the common cold bring people to the emergency room? Doctors see more of these cases than you'd expect. Find out more by clicking over to the next page.
Upper Respiratory Infections
Infections as regular as the common cold can send people to the ER, too. Upper respiratory infections caused by viruses, including those responsible for the common cold and flu, are fairly widespread among emergency rooms.
Like most illnesses, upper respiratory infections may call for emergency care if symptoms are severe enough in a patient. For example, someone with the flu who is experiencing frequent vomiting might consider heading to the ER. Other symptoms such as fainting, continual diarrhea, changes in vision, and chest or abdominal pressure are ER-worthy, doctors say [source: American College of Emergency Physicians Foundation].
With that in mind, it's also true that most cases can be handled through urgent care, where trained professionals can provide expert treatment as well. To lessen the strain on emergency rooms, consider making it to an urgent care facility or see your primary physician before heading to the ER.
Our upcoming reason to visit the ER usually involves sharp objects. Read on to learn more.
Cuts and Contusions
Cuts are as common to Hollywood ERs as they are to real life ones.
But reality deviates from movies when we examine the cause for most cuts. In films, the cut patients often end up in the ER because of violence, but that's not always the case in actual emergency rooms.
In fact, most cuts are unintentional and result from an accident with a knife or glass. Overall, the need for emergency care depends on the depth of the cut, whether it hit bone, the amount of bleeding, and whether there is any debris in the cut area [source: American College of Emergency Physicians Foundation]. Smaller cuts with controllable bleeding can be addressed at urgent care.
Contusions -- bruises -- and head trauma are also up there in common reasons to visit the ER. In 2009, cuts, broken bones, contusions and trauma injuries sustained in nonfatal motor vehicle crashes sent more than 2.3 million adults to U.S. emergency rooms [source: Beck].
The next common reason for making a trip to the hospital's emergency room relates to an area we might take for granted. Think you've experienced it? Check the next page to find out.
Believe it or not, back pain is an increasingly common case in the ER.
Even though some instances of back pain involve gradual soreness, an accident or faulty movement might push someone to strain a back muscle or even harm one of the many bones comprising the spinal column.
In 2008, back pain earned its spot as the No. 1 reason for patients to visit the ER, doctor or other health clinics [source: Owens et al.]. In the majority of instances, a condition called spondylosis, or the degeneration of cervical or lumbar discs, contributes to patients' pain.
According to health experts, back pain may be caused by daily activities, lifting or twisting the area the wrong way, or a lack of muscles to strengthen the back [source: American College of Emergency Physicians Foundation]. On the other hand, such pain may signify another health problem such as kidney stones, arthritis or a herniated disc. This is why back pain in older individuals is worth investigating if it's not already chronic.
Skin protects us from the outside world and elements. Unfortunately, it can also bear the brunt of harmful things we encounter. Head over to the next page for more details.
Skin's role defending our bodies is compromised when there's a hole in the system -- a chink in the armor, you can say. Pus-filled abscesses and other skin infections can create abnormal reactions in the body that are both painful and bring on other symptoms. Skin infections also open up the body to microbes normally blocked by skin itself or the immune system.
Fortunately, ER doctors can drain abscesses and investigate skin problems, prescribing medications to battle infection and pain. Some infections that move rapidly or are resistant to antibiotics require speedy treatment, while others may not. One superbug bacterium, called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), is increasingly common in emergency rooms [source: Champeau].
On the next page, we'll examine the more bizarre side of emergency rooms: when medical experts find objects in unexpected places.
Foreign Objects in the Body
ERs around the world aren't spared from bizarre cases in which patients end up with foreign objects such as coins inside their bodies.
Though there's little data on how often doctors encounter foreign objects, we're more likely to hear about them. The outlook for the patient depends on the object and whether it can be removed or passed. According to one medical source, small objects passing through the upper intestinal tract have a 90 percent chance of moving through, while those larger than 2 centimeters (about .78 inches) in diameter have a smaller chance [source: Munter]. Another analysis shows that roughly 1,500 deaths per year result in foreign object complications [source: Chen and Beierle].
And it's not unheard of for inmates or drug smugglers to try to hide objects in their body' cavities, either [source: Munter]. Items can also be intentionally inserted into the body for sexual stimulation and can get stuck [source: Barone et al.].
Our last reason patients visit the ER occurs in most people. Can you guess what it is?
ER doctors see more headache cases than you'd expect.
While headaches usually don't require emergency attention, patients often find themselves in enough pain to show up at ERs. Cases include chronic migraines, which may require further testing with referred neurologists. Although rarely, headaches can be signs of more serious illness such as "meningitis, cerebral hemorrhaging or a brain tumor," according to emergency doctors [source: American College of Emergency Physicians Foundation].
The thing with headaches is they can coincide with patients feeling sick to their stomachs and vomiting, which can cause them to suspect having a more serious condition. Fortunately, ERs have special imaging equipment that can peer into patients' brains to see if there's anything unusual or worth investigating.
For more resources on emergency care and reasons people use it, check out the following page.
How are ambulances dispatched and why do they cost so much? HowStuffWorks takes a close look at the world of ambulances.
- Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. "Emergency Severity Index, Version 4." U.S. Department of Human & Health Services. (June 30, 2011). http://www.ahrq.gov/research/esi/esi1.htm
- American College of Emergency Physicians Foundation. "About Emergencies: When should I go to the emergency department?" (June 26, 2011). http://www.emergencycareforyou.org/YourHealth/AboutEmergencies/Default.aspx?id=26018
- American College of Emergency Physicians Foundation. "Body Basics: Common Pains Seen in the Emergency Department." (June 26, 2011). http://www.emergencycareforyou.org/VitalCareMagazine/BodyBasics/Default.aspx?id=508
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Poisoning in the United States: Fact Sheet." June 22, 2011. (June 30, 2011). http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Poisoning/poisoning-factsheet.htm
- Champeau, Rachel. "UCLA Study Finds MRSA Most Common Cause of Skin Infections in ER Patients." UCLA Newsroom. Aug. 16, 2006. (June 30, 2011). http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/UCLA-Study-Finds-MRSA-Most-Common-7245.aspx?RelNum=7245
- Chen, MK & Beierle, EA. 2001. "Gastrointestinal Foreign Bodies." Pediatric Annals. vol. 30, no. 12. pp. 736-742. (June 30, 2011). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11766202
- Hines, Anika, Fraze, Taressa, & Stocks, Carol. "Emergency Department Visits in Rural and Non-rural Community Hospitals." Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. June 2011. (June 28, 2011). http://www.hcup-us.ahrq.gov/reports/statbriefs/sb116.pdf
- Howell, Randall. "Chest Pain and the ER." Washington University Physicians: Ask the Expert. (June 28, 2011). http://wuphysicians.wustl.edu/page.aspx?pageID=959
- Mayo Clinic Staff. "Chest Pain." MayoClinic.com. Feb. 11, 2011. (June 28, 2011). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/chest-pain/DS00016
- MedlinePlus. "Fever." June 22, 2011. (June 28, 2011). http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003090.htm
- MedlinePlus. "Tooth Abscess." June 22, 2011. (June 27, 2011). http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001060.htm
- Munter, David. "Gastrointestinal Foreign Bodies in Emergency Medicine." Medscape Reference. March 16, 2010. (June 30, 2011). http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/776566-overview
- Niska, Richard, Bhuiya, Farida, & Xu, Jianmin. "National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 2007 Emergency Department Summary." National Health Statistics Reports, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Aug. 6, 2010. (June 30, 2011). http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr026.pdf
- Owens, Pamela, Woeltje, Maeve, & Mutter, Ryan. "Emergency Department Visits and Inpatient Stays Related to Back Problems, 2008." Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. February 2011. (June 28, 2011). http://www.hcup-us.ahrq.gov/reports/statbriefs/sb105.pdf
- Preidt, Robert. "Urgent Care, Retail Clinics Offer Alternatives to ER Visits." HealthDay News. Sept. 7, 2010. (June 30, 2011). http://www.healthfinder.gov/news/newsstory.aspx?docID=642813
- WebMD. "Swallowed Objects: Topic Overview." WebMD.com. Oct. 8, 2009. (June 30, 2011). http://firstaid.webmd.com/tc/swallowed-objects-topic-overview