ER vs Trauma Center: What's the Difference?

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In the medical industry, names are often thrown around or used in place of one another without much explanation. The terms emergency room and trauma center are no exceptions. If an accident happens, it’s important to know whether you should be taken to the ER or to the Trauma Center. Making the right choice could save a life. 

What is The Emergency Room?

The emergency room, emergency department or ER, is where people go when they need emergency assistance. That seems general, but ERs can handle anything from sprained ankles to heart attacks and strokes. They have the facilities, doctors and expertise to handle almost everything that comes their way. 

What is a Trauma Center?

Trauma centers are usually located within the ER. They aren’t often discussed singularly because they are part of the emergency room system. Trauma centers handle the extreme cases where there is an issue of immediate survival. Highly-specialized surgeons work with the most advanced equipment to increase the likelihood of survival in the patients that are sent there. The word “trauma” best describes what brings people to these centers as they are equipped to handle life-threatening and critical injuries.

Paramedics often make a decision where the injured should be taken after evaluating the incident. Patients, however, can choose to which hospital they wish to be taken. Choosing a Level I Trauma Center can be the difference between life and death.

When to Go to The Emergency Room

  • Possible broken limbs - Look for bruising, loss of normal function and numbness in the area that is suspected of being broken. If the bone is visible through the skin, go to the ER immediately.
  • Loss of consciousness - A bump on the head that results in loss of consciousness should be attended to in the emergency room. If the head injury is determined to be blunt force trauma by the paramedic, they may be taken to a trauma center instead. Never try to move someone who is unconscious due to a fall or accident unless necessary. Always call 911.
  • Fainting - Syncope, or fainting, is caused by a lack of blood getting to the brain. Many things can cause fainting, and it’s important to get checked out by a doctor if it occurs. It may be a sign of a nervous system malfunction, heart problems or a drop in blood pressure, among others.
  • Signs of a heart attack - In women, symptoms of a heart attack include uncomfortable pressure or pain in the chest, pain in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach, shortness of breath and more. Remember that women often don’t experience chest pain when they have a heart attack. In men, symptoms are almost identical, but most often include chest pain and discomfort.
  • Signs of a stroke - The American Stroke Association indicates that the warning signs of a stroke are a drooping face, arm weakness or numbness and difficulty speaking. If any of these symptoms are present, even if they go away, it’s time to call 911.
  • Severe stomach pains - If your stomach pains are associated with blood in vomit or stool, difficulty breathing, fever or injury, it’s time for a visit to the ER.
  • Shortness of breath - Shortness of breath can be a sign of a heart attack and other serious conditions. 
  • Severe diarrhea or vomiting These conditions can be warning signs of many illnesses and other problems. They can also cause dehydration.
  • Burns - If your burn is a first- or second-degree burn and covers an area larger than two to three inches or is over a major joint, you should go to the emergency room.

When to Go to The Trauma Center

Most often, a trip to the trauma center will not be decided by you. Severe injuries, like those that require a trauma center, are often brought to the hospital via ambulance. Trauma is the leading cause of death in people under the age of 40. Always call 911 in the event of any of these injuries.

  • Traumatic car crashes injuries
  • Gun shot wounds
  • Stab wounds
  • Major burns
  • Serious falls
  • Blunt trauma (striking or being struck by an object)
  • Traumatic brain injuries

Even if you are unsure whether your injury or accident requires the emergency room or the trauma center, always call 911. The paramedics will help you make that decision.