What Is an Orthopedic Surgeon?
An orthopedic surgeon is a physician who specializes in diagnosing and treating injuries and conditions that affect the body’s bones, muscles, joints, ligament, tendons, cartilage, and nerves. Together, these structures form the musculoskeletal system.
Some orthopedic surgeons subspecialize in treating certain body parts, such as the hand and wrist; foot and ankle; shoulder and elbow; hip; knee; or spine (neck and back). Some subspecialize in a specific field of orthopedics, such as sports medicine, joint replacement (reconstructive surgery), pediatrics, trauma, or oncology (bone tumors). They are not mutually exclusive; orthopedic surgeons may further devote themselves to an even smaller subset of patients, such as hip and knee joint replacement, or pediatric sports medicine.
Orthopedic Education, Training, and Certification
The more an orthopedic surgeon specializes, the more training they have completed. At a minimum, all orthopedic surgeons undergo 13 years of academic education and post-graduate training, including:
- Four years at a college or university to obtain an undergraduate degree
- Four years in medical school to earn a medical degree (MD or DO)
- Five years of post-graduate training to complete an orthopedic residency at a major medical center
If an orthopedic surgeon chooses to subspecialize after residency, he or she will typically complete an additional year of specialty training during a fellowship, such as a fellowship in adult reconstructive surgery.
Following residency training, an orthopedic surgeon is eligible to take the exam to become board certified, which is the gold standard for medical specialization in the United States. The oral and written exams are administered by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery. Those who are in the process of becoming certified are considered board eligible.
Once an orthopedic surgeon attains board certification, they must become re-certified every 10 years. Doing so requires the completion of hours of continuing medical education courses, ensuring your doctor stays up-to-date on the most current advances and skills in orthopedic surgery.
How Do I Know If I Need to See an Orthopedic Surgeon?
If you have suffered a musculoskeletal injury, or you are experiencing pain in your bones, muscles, joints, nerves, or soft tissues, then you need to see an orthopedic surgeon for a consultation. They can diagnose and treat numerous problems:
- Degenerative joint conditions such as Arthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
- Sports injuries such as rotator cuff tears, ACL and other knee ligament tears, cartilage tears, concussions
- Workplace accidents such as back or neck injuries
- Sprains and strains such as ankle sprain or hamstring muscle injury
- Overuse injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis
- Broken bones – from minor fractures that only need immobilization, to complex fractures that require surgery
After performing a physical exam and discussing your medical history, your orthopedic surgeon may recommend diagnostic imaging, such as an X-ray, MRI, or musculoskeletal ultrasound to help him diagnose your condition or injury. Unless you have a traumatic complex fracture, in which case you probably ended up in the ER, treatment will always include conservative methods first, such as anti-inflammatory medication, therapeutic injections, and/or physical therapy.
Your orthopedic doctor will recommend surgery only after you have tried conservative treatments and no longer respond to them. Arthroscopy is one of the most common procedures performed by orthopedic surgeons. This minimally invasive technique allows the surgeon to visualize, diagnose, and treat problems inside a joint.
Often performed on an outpatient basis, arthroscopic surgery requires only small incisions around the joint, which results in shorter recovery times, decreased risk of infection, less pain and bleeding, and a quick return to work.