10 Conditions the ER Can't Help You With

Chronic Pain
Chronic pain is better managed by an ongoing relationship with your primary care physician than with an ER visit. © Catherine Yeulet/Thinkstock

Pain is one of the most common reasons why any of us visit the ER. As many as 20 percent of people report living with chronic pain, and some estimates suggest that our chronic pain complaints account for a just shy of half of all visits to the emergency department overall [sources: Knox et al., Grover].

There are many types of chronic pain, and all are best managed by a health care provider whose job it is to get to know us and our chronic issues by building a doctor-patient relationship over time. Primary care health care providers are able to establish a history and relationship with patients because they care for their patients over several years. Emergency and urgent care providers, on the other hand, are better equipped to handle acute pain; think one-time instances such as a headache that appears suddenly and is the worst you've ever had in your life, or the pain of a broken arm.

For many of us who show up at the ER complaining of chronic back pain, the odds of being given a few days' supply of pain medication and an order to follow up with a primary care doctor for long-term treatment are good. However, in addition to potentially taking time and resources away from true emergencies, some patients complaining of chronic pain may also be what emergency department teams call "repeat customers." Those are patients who visit the emergency department with pain complaints continuously over several months or even several years. Emergency health care providers may be suspicious of patients who complain of chronic pain; it's one of the red flags that a patient is a narcotics seeker who might be lying to get pain pills.