What Is An Orthopedic Doctor

What Is An Orthopedic Doctor
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In addition, every state currently requires medical students to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Three sets of exams are required to gain national licensure.

What Is an Orthopedic Physician?

Orthopedic physicians (sometimes also called orthopaedic physicians) are doctors who specialize in injuries of the musculoskeletal system — which includes bones, joints, ligaments, nerves, and tendons.

The field of orthopedics was first developed to treat children who had crippling or debilitating diseases. It makes sense, then, that the word “orthopedic” is derived from the Greek words “ortho,” meaning straight, and “pais,” meaning children or pediatric. Today, orthopedic physicians treat patients of all ages.

Almost everyone experiences joint pain at some point in their life, and many people have musculoskeletal injuries that require medical attention. If specialized diagnostics and treatment are required for your injury, you’ll likely see an orthopedic physician.

Even if you aren’t a physically active person, you can damage your muscle tissue simply through the wear and tear of daily activities. Prolonged computer use, working without taking breaks, performing repetitive movements, and even poor posture can cause musculoskeletal injuries.

What Does an Orthopedic Physician Do?

Orthopedic physicians diagnose and treat injuries caused by sports or physical activity, overuse, aging, and more. Orthopedic doctors aim to:

Manage Pain

There are a variety of musculoskeletal conditions and injuries that can cause discomfort and/or pain. Orthopedic physicians can help reduce or eliminate pain from such injuries.

Orthopedic doctors specialize in treating pain in the following body parts:

Improve Range of Motion

Pain, stiffness, and swelling of the joints can cause a decrease in your range of motion. When this occurs, it can be difficult to complete daily tasks, including showering, cleaning, bending over, and more. Orthopedic physicians help to get your range of motion back to normal through physical therapy or other treatments. Sometimes, surgery is needed.

Treat and Prevent Injuries

Broken bones, compression fractures, stress fractures, dislocations, muscle injuries, and tendon tears or ruptures are conditions that orthopedic doctors commonly treat. Orthopedic doctors can also make a treatment and prevention plan to help you avoid future injuries.

Education and Training

Orthopedic physicians must go through traditional medical school training, including academic work toward their Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree and a two- to four-year residency.

In addition, every state currently requires medical students to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Three sets of exams are required to gain national licensure.

Orthopedic surgeons may also pursue Board Certification. A valid medical license is required to become Board Certified, but certification is not necessary for licensure. A Board Certified orthopedic surgeon has met the standards and passed the tests that assure their patients that they have been adequately trained in orthopedics.

What Conditions Does an Orthopedic Physician Treat?

Orthopedic physicians can diagnose and make treatment plans for countless musculoskeletal conditions, including:

  • Arthritis
  • Bone Tumors
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Hip Dysplasia
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Neurofibromatosis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Runner’s Knee
  • Sciatica
  • Tennis Elbow

Reasons to See an Orthopedic Physician

Persistent pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical help from orthopedic doctors. If you have persistent pain lasting more than three months or severe pain that does not subside with home treatment, you should consider making an appointment with an orthopedic doctor.

You may consider seeing an orthopedic physician because:

  • You’re experiencing a noticeable decrease in your range of motion
  • You can’t walk without pain or discomfort
  • You have moderate or advanced arthritis of the knee or hip
  • You have progressive hip or knee pain that worsens upon standing
  • Your daily life is affected by your pain and discomfort
  • You have chronic pain (lasting more than 12 weeks)
  • You have a soft tissue injury that has not improved after several days

Wondering if you should go directly to an orthopedic specialist or see your primary care doctor first? If there is a possibility that you have a traumatic or repetitive motion injury to a bone, joint, tendon, or nerve, you should see an orthopedic physician as soon as possible.

What to Expect at the Orthopedic Physician

When you arrive at your orthopedic doctor’s office, the medical team will ask questions about the location, severity, and onset of your pain. They will likely also ask about your medical history and physical activity level — all to understand how your pain affects your day-to-day activities.

Depending on your unique situation, your orthopedic doctor may also have you perform physical tests to assess your range of motion or degree of injury. They may also order additional testing, such as an X-ray, CT scan (also called a CAT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an ultrasound, or an electromyography (EMG).

Show Sources

American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery: “Certification.”

Beaumont Health: “Common Reasons for Visiting an Orthopedic Doctor.”

Boston Sports Medicine: “Common Orthopedic Diagnostic Tests: Why Would My Doctor Order Them and What Do They Mean?”

Central Street Chiropractic: “Musculoskeletal Injuries: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments.”

Illinois Bone and Joint Institute: “Orthopedic Doctors: When should I see an orthopedic physician?”

United States Medical Licensing Examination: “About USMLE.”

What Is an Orthopedic Doctor and How Can They Help You?

Orthopedics is the medical field that focuses on diseases and conditions that affect your musculoskeletal system. This includes your:

  • bones
  • muscles
  • ligaments and tendons
  • joints
  • nerves

People often visit an orthopedic doctor when they’re injured or when they have a chronic condition, such as arthritis or lower back pain.

In this article, we’ll take a deeper dive into what orthopedic doctors do, the conditions they treat, and how to find the right orthopedic doctor for you.

Orthopedic doctors, often referred to as orthopedic surgeons, focus on helping you with musculoskeletal issues. Their duties include:

  • diagnosing and treating conditions that affect your musculoskeletal system
  • assisting with rehabilitation, which helps you regain movement, strength, range of motion, and flexibility following an injury or surgery
  • forming strategies to prevent injury or to keep chronic conditions, such as arthritis, from worsening

While orthopedic doctors know about all parts of the musculoskeletal system, some choose to specialize further. Some subspecialty areas of orthopedics include:

  • spine
  • hip and knee
  • hand
  • shoulder and elbow
  • foot and ankle
  • sports medicine
  • trauma surgery

Orthopedic doctors treat a wide variety of conditions, including but not limited to the following:

  • bone fractures
  • muscle strains
  • joint or back pain
  • arthritis
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • injuries to tendons or ligaments, such as sprains, tendonitis, and ACL tears
  • limb abnormalities, such as clubfoot and bowlegs
  • bone cancer

Orthopedic doctors recommend a variety of treatments and procedures for the conditions they handle.

Let’s explore some of them in more detail below.

Nonsurgical treatments

These types of treatments are also called conservative treatments. Orthopedic doctors will often focus on nonsurgical treatments first before recommending surgery.

Some types of nonsurgical treatments include:

  • Exercises. Your orthopedic doctor may recommend specific exercises or stretches to help maintain or improve your strength, flexibility, and range of motion in a particular area.
  • Immobilization. Sometimes preventing additional strain to an area can help it to heal. Examples of immobilization techniques include braces, splints, and casts.
  • Medications. Your orthopedic doctor may recommend certain medications to help relieve symptoms like pain and swelling. Some examples include over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and aspirin. They may also prescribe certain prescription drugs like corticosteroids and anti-inflammatory medicine.
  • Lifestyle changes. Your orthopedic doctor may also help you with making lifestyle changes. These can involve modifying your physical activity, diet, and the ways you exercise to prevent aggravation of an injury or condition.

Surgical treatments

Sometimes a condition or injury doesn’t improve with conservative measures. In these cases, your doctor may recommend surgery. Some examples of operations performed by an orthopedic surgeon include:

  • Joint replacement. Joint replacement surgery involves replacing the parts of a joint that have become damaged or diseased, usually secondary to arthritis. Examples include knee replacement and hip replacement surgery.
  • Internal fixation.Internal fixation involves the placement of hardware such as pins, screws, plates, and rods to help hold broken bones in place while they’re healing.
  • Fusion. This involves using bone graft material plus some form of internal fixation to connect two bones together. As the bone tissue heals, it fuses into one bone. This technique is often used in neck and spine surgery.
  • Osteotomy. Osteotomy is a type of surgery that involves cutting a part of a bone and then repositioning it. This type of surgery may sometimes be used to treat arthritis.
  • Soft tissue repair. This kind of surgery is used to repair severely damaged muscles, ligaments, or tendons.
  • Release surgery. This is a type of surgery that’s performed for carpal tunnel syndrome. It helps to relieve symptoms by reducing pressure on the median nerve.

You may need to see an orthopedic doctor if you have:

  • pain or swelling in a bone, joint, or muscle that’s persistent, recurring, or doesn’t respond to at-home care
  • a significant decrease in the mobility or range of motion of a joint, such as your knee, elbow, or shoulder
  • trouble performing your daily activities
  • nerve-related symptoms, such as numbness and tingling or a “pins and needles” sensation in your arms or legs
  • an injury to a bone or joint that needs the attention of a specialist

There’s a lot of training involved in becoming an orthopedic surgeon. In fact, in the United States, an orthopedist has to complete up to 14 years of education and training.

This includes completing the following:

  • an undergraduate program at a college or university (4 years)
  • medical school (4 years)
  • a residency focused on orthopedics (5 years)
  • a fellowship to subspecialize in one of the areas listed above (1 year)

To confirm that they’re proficient in the field of orthopedics, an orthopedic doctor must also pass a certifying examination.

Once board certified, an orthopedic surgeon must renew their certification every 10 years by completing continuing education courses as well as exams.

If you need to see an orthopedic doctor, these are a few steps you can take:

  • Talk to your primary care doctor. Your primary care doctor may be able to recommend or refer you to an orthopedic surgeon in your area.
  • Search online. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) has an online search tool that can help you find an orthopedic doctor near you.
  • Ask a friend or family member. If someone close to you has had a similar condition, they may be able to recommend an orthopedic surgeon that they had a good experience with.
  • Read online reviews or use social media. Online reviews may provide you with some insight into the orthopedic surgeon’s training, abilities, and success with treating various conditions. Reaching out on neighborhood apps or social media may also help you find a doctor who’s a good fit for you.

You can connect with an orthopedic doctor in your area using the Healthline FindCare tool.

While looking for an orthopedic doctor, you’ll want to know if they’re covered under your insurance. If they aren’t, you may end up paying out-of-pocket costs that you didn’t plan for.

Often, insurance will cover care that’s considered medically necessary to diagnose or treat a specific condition.

However, it’s always a good idea to contact your insurance company to learn more about what’s covered before visiting an orthopedic doctor.

What about Medicare and Medicaid?

Medicare is a federal health insurance program for adults over the age of 65, as well as some other younger groups with specific chronic health conditions. People with Medicare often have either:

  • Original Medicare (Part A and Part B).Part B is the outpatient medical insurance portion of original Medicare. It covers nonhospital based medical services that are considered necessary to diagnose or treat a specific condition.
  • Medicare Advantage (Part C).Part C plans are offered by private insurance companies. Advantage plans are required to cover the same basic benefits as original Medicare but may also offer additional benefits.

Medicaid is a joint federal and state program that provides assistance with healthcare costs to those with lower incomes or resources. Eligibility and what exactly is covered varies from state to state.

Some research, both recent and older , has indicated that people with Medicare or Medicaid may have trouble accessing timely orthopedic care.

However, there are tools you can use to find doctors that accept these programs:

  • For Medicare. Use the Physician Compare tool. This allows you to input a variety of information in order to find doctors in your area that accept Medicare.
  • For Medicaid. Contact your state’s Medicaid office to find out which doctors in your state accept Medicaid.

Orthopedic surgeons diagnose and treat conditions affecting your bones, muscles, and joints.

Treatment can include conservative measures, such as exercise and medication, or in some instances, operations like total knee replacement.

Orthopedic doctors can also assist with rehabilitation and help prevent the symptoms of an existing condition from getting worse.

Some examples of conditions that orthopedic doctors treat include:

  • bone fractures
  • arthritis
  • back or joint pain

You may also find that some orthopedic doctors subspecialize in a specific area of orthopedics, such as:

  • sports medicine
  • hand surgery
  • orthopedic trauma

To find an orthopedic surgeon, you can ask your primary care doctor for a referral or search an online database like the one provided by the AAOS.

To minimize any out-of-pocket expenses, ensure that the physician you choose is part of your health insurance company’s network and plan.

Last medically reviewed on June 29, 2020