What do Orthopedic Doctors do?

Margo Upson
Margo Upson

Orthopedic doctors are medical experts who focus on repairing injuries to the musculoskeletal system, including the spine and major joints. There are multiple branches of orthopedics and as a result doctors can do a wide variety of things. Some are trained as surgeons and spend most of their time resetting bones and rebuilding muscular tissues internally; others are trained in rehabilitation or work only with specified age groups, like children or the elderly. In large metropolitan areas there may also be orthopedists who focus only on certain parts of the body — knees, for instance, or arms and wrists. The day-to-day lives of these doctors can be very different, but the core of the job is often somewhat similar across the board. All are focused on the interplay between muscles and bones, and all work to heal problems and restore patient wholeness.

A man with a sprained ankle.
A man with a sprained ankle.

Common Procedures and Tasks

The most common reason that people go see an orthopedic doctor for is treatment of a broken bone, though arthritis treatment and management of carpal tunnel and rotator cuff injuries are also considered somewhat “standard.” Theses sorts of doctors routinely perform arthroscopies, which are minimally invasive procedures to explores hip, shoulder, or knee damage. Minor joint problems can often be corrected during an arthroscopy, but more serious conditions may require further surgery.

An orthopedic doctor may consult with patients as well as perform surgical duties.
An orthopedic doctor may consult with patients as well as perform surgical duties.

Paperwork is also usually a big part of the job. Doctors must usually keep fairly comprehensive records of their interactions with patients, and must document any treatments or recommendations. In hospitals and larger clinics there are often special medical documents experts to handle things like insurance claims and filing, but not always, and the primary recording is usually the responsibility of the doctor in any event.

An orthopedic doctor may specialize in hip replacement surgery.
An orthopedic doctor may specialize in hip replacement surgery.

Areas of Expertise

The biggest factor that will determine what exactly this type of doctor does on a day to day basis is the specialty that he or she has chosen. In most places orthopedics is a broad field that doctors often choose to narrow by limiting their practice to certain types or injuries or conditions. Some will spend most of their time setting broken bones, but others are experts in joint problems like arthritis and degenerative conditions like osteoporosis; it’s also usually possible to find experts who treat only sports injuries, infections, congenital conditions, and tumors in the bones. Orthopedic surgeons are their own subset, performing operations to repair the worst injuries.

A doctor will typically spend about as much time with patients as in research.
A doctor will typically spend about as much time with patients as in research.

No matter his or her area of primary interest, a doctor will typically spend about as much time with patients as in research. Like most branches of medicine, orthopedics changes fairly regularly as the body of knowledge shifts to adapt to changing technology and new findings. Being an expert usually means staying on top of everything, which practically speaking often means a lot of time spent reading medical journals, studying patient outcomes, and sometimes also publishing unique findings or thoughts so others in the profession can benefit.

Orthopedic doctors who specialize in sports medicine diagnose and treat joint problems resulting from sports-related injuries.
Orthopedic doctors who specialize in sports medicine diagnose and treat joint problems resulting from sports-related injuries.

Work Settings

Many orthopedists work in hospitals and see patients right away after accidents. These professionals rarely have a chance to select their patients. They pretty much get whoever comes through the door. This type of work is often some of the most general since the variety of injuries encountered can be so vast. A doctor may treat a teenager with a broken leg in the morning and a woman with arthritis in the afternoon; dislocated shoulders, sprained ankles, carpal tunnel syndrome, and metastatic bone growths may make up the next day’s agenda.

Not all work is so varied, though. Professionals who work in private practice often have a lot more say over the types of patients and injuries they treat. Specialized clinics may treat only sports-related injuries, for instance, or may be limited to hip or knee replacements.

Surgeons are usually the most specialized of all. Some general orthopedic surgeons on staff with hospitals will perform a variety of different operations, but it’s also common to find professionals who only do certain types of procedures. These more “extreme” specialists tend to work in big cities where there is enough demand to keep their patient rosters full most of the time. The smaller the community, in most cases, the more general the orthopedist’s work must be in order to stay busy.

Education and Training Requirements

Becoming an orthopedic doctor usually requires a substantial investment of time. Candidates must first complete a bachelor’s degree, which typically takes four years, then finish medical school training, which often takes another four. Some countries admit people right out of high school into doctor training programs rather than requiring an independent undergraduate degree first, but even then the time invested &madash; around eight years — is usually about the same.

Simply holding a medical degree isn’t usually enough, either. Doctors must usually refine their expertise through an orthopedics residency and internship program, which can take between five and eight additional years depending on the intricacy of the procedures mastered. Most places require orthopedists to keep their credentials and expertise sharp through continuing education, too, which often requires doctors to attend regular medical conferences and, in some cases, actually sit for periodic exams to test their skills.

An orthopedic doctor may treat patients with fractured hips.
An orthopedic doctor may treat patients with fractured hips.
Margo Upson
Margo Upson

Margo has a varied academic background, which has involved everything from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education. These wide-ranging interests make her an ideal wiseGEEK writer, as she always enjoys becoming an expert on new and unfamiliar topics.

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Discussion Comments


I fell on my shoulder a few years ago. The first day I was sore and the next day, my hand swelled up. Then it went away, but I still get constant pain. X-rays show nothing and physical therapy helped a little.


I have muscle pain in my left side. Please tell me which doctor to visit and tell me the treatment for this pain.


I have a mass under my arm, and my physician wants me to see an orthopedist. What would that involve?


What doctor should I see for uric acid?


I have had serious pain in my knees and the small of my back. I wear the knee braces that you can buy over the counter to try and keep them steady. If I don't wear them, people say that my knees move from side to side. Should I go to an orthopedic doctor?


I sprained my wrist after falling over and they gave me a bandage, but they told me to see an orthopedist and I was wondering if they can put you in a cast if it doesn't heal properly. My wrist clicks and I can feel the bone moving in a weird way, and when I pick something heavy up it just hurts. Is this also normal? It's been like three or four months since I had my accident. Please help.


I have knock knees. Would I benefit from seeing an orthopedic doctor?


Long story short version. Husband fell 17' 17 months ago, landed on his feet, had a broken left heel in ~3 places. Was told did not need surgery, has been on pain meds ever since - hydromorphone (6mg x2; 1mg x4/day)+ lyrica(150mg x2/day) and a few others as well. Has had many different casts made (air and solid plastic). He is still in pain/burning and constant never going away pain. He felt much better in the air cast, but it is not work safe for him. Can a boot or shoe be made that works like an air cast?


I had my pelvis dislocated in 2007 when i was delivering my baby. She weighed 3.4kg, from then i was not able to walk or sleep on my sides for 10 months. i had another baby at 34 weeks in 2010 via c-section due to my pelvis acting up again. I am feeling pains in my pelvis again. is there any sort of exercise that i can do to get a speedy recovery?


Fell and badly damaged the ligaments on my ankle in sep 2010. I am still getting treatment from physio. I thought it would be better a long time ago. So why am I still sore and have a tight, burning sensation?


My three year old daughter was seen by a podiatrist today and diagnosed with flat feet (scan of the foot showed no arch) and pronation and was fitted for orthopedic insoles. I thought maybe there would be some sort of PT or exercises for the foot, but the podiatrist only mentioned the insoles. Would you recommend that she see an orthopedic doctor as well for a second opinion?


It's not really college until you're 31 - you finish undergrad (four years), then med school (four years), and ortho residency (usually five years, rarely four). The residency is not college. It is paid, usually just enough to get by, and very demanding, but it is actual work in a hospital. The best way to think of it is like a paid apprenticeship.


so, you go to college until you're 31? what about marriage and children?


I'm doing a podcast for my sixth grade class about becoming an Orthopedic doctor. This helps so much.


how much would it cost to see an orthopedic doctor? i don't have health insurance and my shoulder is in some pain. it only hurts when i try to move my arm across my body. the pain feels like it located at the back of my shoulder.


i am working on a report for seventh grade and this info is helping a lot! regan


Cary, what was the problem? Don't leave us hanging like that, please.


I once twisted my ankle badly, and it just happened that an orthopedic doctor was working in the ER when I went in. He was able to determine that the repeated minor problems I had been having with my feet in general were actually symptoms of a much more serious neurological problem! I was so lucky to have been seen by him.

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