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What is an Orthopedic Surgeon?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An orthopedic surgeon, and this may also be spelled orthopaedic surgeon, is a medical doctor specializing in treating conditions or injuries that affect the skeletal system, its surrounding muscles and the various tissues like ligaments, joints, and tendons that are connected to bones and their surrounding muscle. This may be more accurately named the musculoskeletal system. Though the term surgeon is included, these doctors do more than surgery and use a variety of methods to help promote healing, which can include things like casting broken bones or advocating back braces to help address scoliosis.

Educational demands to become an orthopedic surgeon are time consuming and rigorous. In addition to getting a four-year bachelor’s degree, these doctors attend medical school, and then complete several years of internship and residency requirements as well. Many spend another year or two in fellowship programs to specialize in certain fields, and might choose to become pediatric surgeons or those who have expertise in sports medicine or the treatment of cancer in the musculoskeletal system. In all, these doctors can expect to complete 12-14 years of training after graduating from high school.

Those surgeons who don’t specialize in a specific area of orthopedics may treat a diverse clientele with numerous needs. They can work with babies, kids, adults an the elderly, and may have significant variance in the types of jobs they perform. Their work could include things like helping to heal broken bones, addressing repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel, or treating people with injuries due to sports participation. These surgeons also have patients with long-term conditions like cerebral palsy, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or brittle bone disease.

Although some procedures and treatments an orthopedic surgeon offers are non-surgical, there are many surgeries these doctors perform. These can include things like joint replacement, surgically resetting bones, and correcting damage to soft tissue. This list is very short and in no way should be considered exhaustive. Generally it can be said that orthopedic surgeons get involved when people have illness or injury to most aspects of the musculoskeletal system and this illness or injury is significant enough that it is not treatable by general practitioners.

There are some surgeries an orthopedist might perform that overlap into other specialties. Podiatrists can perform some surgeries on the feet and ankles, and certain surgeries on the spine might be the province of neurosurgeons. Certain conditions require care from more than one specialist. This might the case for people who have rheumatoid arthritis. They may see an orthopedic surgeon and an immunologist or rheumatologist.

Many surgeons work in hospitals and treat only the population that comes into the hospital. Others maintain private practice and perform surgery as necessary. Because these doctors are specialists, patients may need to get referrals from health insurance companies or their general practitioner prior to seeing an orthopedic surgeon. However, this really depends on health plan and health coverage.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
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Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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