Orthopedic Surgeon: Your Bone & Joint Specialist

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is an orthopedic surgeon?

An orthopedic surgeon specializes in diagnosing, treating, preventing and rehabilitating injuries and diseases of the musculoskeletal system, including the muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons, nerves and bones. An orthopedic surgeon provides medical and surgical care for people of all ages who have problems with their joints, muscles or bones.

An orthopedic surgeon typically:

  • Evaluates a patient’s medical history and any previous tests or records

  • Performs a physical exam

  • Provides exercise, alternative and rehabilitation therapies

  • Orders and interprets laboratory and imaging tests and prescribes medications

  • Diagnoses and treats acute and chronic musculoskeletal diseases and conditions including back pain, arthritis, and sports injuries

  • Performs surgical procedures on your bones, joints, and surrounding tissues and structures, such as knee replacement or anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) repair

An orthopedic surgeon may also be known as a bone doctor, orthopedic doctor, joint specialist, or orthopedist. You may also see it spelled differently, as orthopaedic surgeon (orthopaedist).

Who should see an orthopedic surgeon?

Most people see an orthopedic surgeon when their primary care doctor refers them to one. Often, the purpose of the referral is to evaluate your need for surgery. However, people may also see an orthopedic surgeon for medical management or rehabilitation of musculoskeletal diseases and conditions.

Anyone with musculoskeletal conditions should consider consulting an orthopedic surgeon for a proper diagnosis and the most appropriate treatment options.

When should you see an orthopedic surgeon?

Consider seeking care from an orthopedic surgeon if you develop any of the following symptoms or conditions:

  • Bone pain

  • Broken bones or dislocated joints

  • Chronic back pain or spine deformities

  • Difficulty walking, kneeling, bending, or turning your head and neck

  • Growth abnormalities (uneven leg length, knock-knees, or bowlegs)

  • Joint deformities

  • Muscle weakness

  • Osteoporosis symptoms (spine deformities, decrease in height, and frequent fractures)

  • Persistent joint pain, swelling or stiffness

  • Severe or chronic pulled muscles, sprains, or strains

You should also seek care from an experienced orthopedic surgeon if you have a sports or work-related injury or suffer from cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, or related illnesses.

What conditions and diseases does an orthopedic surgeon treat?

An orthopedic surgeon treats conditions and diseases including:

  • Arthritis including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and gout

  • Back and neck problems including ruptured or slipped spinal discs, sciatica, scoliosis, osteoporosis, spinal stenosis, and fractured vertebrae

  • Deformities including club foot, bunions, uneven bone length, and birth defects

  • Joint conditions including bursitis, tendonitis, torn cartilage, torn ligaments, sprains, and strains

  • Muscle problems including pulled muscles, muscle tears, muscular dystrophy, and cerebral palsy

  • Trauma and bone fractures including injuries to bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, nerves, and vessels in the arms, legs, back and neck

  • Tumors including cancerous and noncancerous tumors of the bones, muscles and joints

What tests does an orthopedic surgeon perform or order?

An orthopedic surgeon can order or perform a wide variety of diagnostic and screening tests including:

  • Blood vessel exams including Doppler ultrasounds and venography

  • Imaging exams including X-rays, bone scans, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

  • Laboratory exams including blood tests, urine tests, and joint aspiration analysis

  • Muscle and nerve studies including flexibility tests, range-of-motion tests, strength tests, nerve conduction studies, and electromyography (EMG) to measure the electrical activity of your muscles

  • Screening tests including bone density tests

What procedures and treatments does an orthopedic surgeon perform or order?

Orthopedic surgeons order or perform various procedures and treatments to manage musculoskeletal conditions. Orthopedic surgeons are trained in medical, surgical and rehabilitation treatments. Common procedures and treatments include:

  • Arthroscopy including any minimally invasive joint procedure to treat problems inside joints

  • Complementary therapies including biofeedback and the use of magnets, sound waves, or electricity to stimulate healing

  • Internal fixation including plates, pins and screws to secure broken bones

  • Joint repair or replacement including total or partial knee replacement, hip replacement, and shoulder replacement

  • Nonsurgical treatments including exercise therapy, medications, injections, casts, splints, crutches, canes, walkers and orthotics

  • Osteotomy including bone repositioning to correct deformities

  • Soft tissue repair including ACL repair, carpal tunnel release, and rotator cuff repair

  • Spinal surgeries including disc removal or repair, spinal fusion, and removal of part of your vertebrae to relieve spinal pressure or nerve impingement

Orthopedic surgeon training and certification

A doctor may practice orthopedic surgery without becoming board certified in the specialty. However, education, training, experience and certification are key elements in establishing a doctor’s level of competence. Board certification verifies that a doctor has completed residency training in the specialty and has passed competency examinations.

A board-certified orthopedic surgeon has earned certification in orthopedic surgery from a U.S. certifying board. A board-certified orthopedic surgeon has:

  • Graduated from medical school or a college of osteopathic medicine, earning an MD or DO degree

  • Completed residency training in orthopedic surgery

  • Passed a certification process including an exam that validates the doctor’s specialized knowledge and skills in orthopedic surgery

To maintain board certification in orthopedic surgery, a doctor must participate in an ongoing certification program.

Doctors who earn board certification in orthopaedic surgery can pursue subspecialty certificates. Subspecialty certification requires additional training beyond the residency program, as well as passing an exam. The additional training is sometimes known as a fellowship. Subspecialties of orthopedic surgery include:

  • Hand surgery focuses on diagnosing and treating problems with any of the structures of the hand, wrist, forearm and elbow.

  • Orthopedic sports medicine focuses on diagnosing, treating and preventing sports injuries, as well as managing conditions that affect participation in sports and other physical activities.

Although not formal, board-certified subspecialties, orthopedic surgeons can train in the following areas:

  • Arthroscopy and arthroscopic surgery focuses on using arthroscopic methods to diagnose and treat joint diseases and injuries.

  • Foot and ankle surgery focuses on caring for people with foot and ankle injuries and diseases.

  • Joint replacement and surgery in arthritis focuses on caring for people with advanced arthritis using medical treatments, joint replacement, and other procedures.

  • Musculoskeletal oncology focuses on treating benign (noncancerous) and malignant tumors of bones, joints and muscles.

  • Pediatric orthopedics focuses on caring for children with injuries, deformities and diseases of the bone, joints, muscles and tendons.

  • Rehabilitation focuses on improving strength and mobility and optimizing recovery through short- and long-term programs.

  • Shoulder and elbow surgery focuses on caring for people with injuries and diseases of the shoulder and elbow.

  • Spine surgery focuses on surgical and nonsurgical treatment of deformities, injuries and disorders of the back and neck.

  • Trauma and fractures focuses on treating injuries to the bones, joints, muscles, tendons, nerves, and vessels of the arms, legs, back and neck.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Nov 8
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Subspecialties: Orthopedic Sports Medicine. American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery. https://www.abos.org/subspecialties/orthopaedic-sports-medicine.aspx.  
  3. Orthopedic Surgeons: Who Are They and What Do They Do? American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://www7.aaos.org/member/directory/definition.htm.  
  4. Requirements for Board Certification. American Osteopathic Board of Orthopedic Surgery. http://www.aobos.org/content/103/certification.aspx.  
  5. Subspecialties: Surgery of the Hand. American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery. https://www.abos.org/subspecialties/surgery-of-the-hand.aspx.  
  6. Treatment & Surgeries. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/menus/treatment.cfm.  
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