Orthopedics is the study of the body’s musculoskeletal system, i.e., bones, joints, and muscles. A doctor who specializes in this discipline treats any part of the system that provides locomotion capabilities. Some specialists focus on legs or arms, while others treat feet and ankles, hips, knees, hands and wrists, and shoulders and elbows. Some orthopedic doctors only perform spinal surgeries, while others are in the broader field of sports medicine. Within any of these areas, doctors may narrow their specialty to a certain category of patients such as children or trauma cases.
An orthopedist may have an overall interest in an entire extremity. For instance, the specialist could only perform leg surgeries, but will do any bone, joint or muscle surgery on the leg. The doctor may find herself repairing a compound fracture, i.e., where a broken bone breaks through the skin, and then handling a dislocated hip case. Likewise, some orthopedists treat ailments of the entire arm, from shoulder to fingers.
It is more common, however, for orthopedic specialties to have narrower focus on arms and legs. The most common orthopedic specialties for legs are divided between knees and hips and feet and ankles. For arms, doctors usually concentrate on hands and wrists or shoulders and elbows. Orthopedists may have an even more limited take on one area by just performing joint replacements. For instance, an orthopedic specializing in knees and hips will replace those joints, but will decline to see patients with torn muscles around the hip or knee.
Other orthopedic doctors choose to focus on the entire musculoskeletal system, but only treat athletes; this specialty is known as sports medicine. These doctors treat the common broken bones, strains, sprains, and muscle ailments that athletes suffer. This field concentrates not only on repairing the damage, but minimizing the athlete’s downtime. Sports medicine orthopedics may range from doctors who care for high school or college athletes to specialists who perform complex surgical procedures on professional athletes.
The range of orthopedic specialties extends to the spine. Spinal orthopedics generally treat any ailment located there from disc problems to pressure on the chord. Surgeons in the specialty perform operations such as spinal fusion, disc replacement, and fracture repair.
Within these many areas of orthopedic specialties, some doctors exclusively treat only certain types of patients. For example, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon may only treat children with knee injuries or with spinal problems. Orthopedists also may specialize in trauma cases. These doctors perform the same types of operations as their colleagues, but are trained to treat patients who may be suffering from multiple life threatening injuries.