What is an Orthopedic Surgeon?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

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.

Orthopedic surgeons specialize in treating the skeletal system.
Orthopedic surgeons specialize in treating the skeletal system.

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.

Web programmers and others who use computers frequently may need cubital or carpal tunnel release surgery.
Web programmers and others who use computers frequently may need cubital or carpal tunnel release surgery.

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.

Many orthopedic surgeons work in hospitals, and treat only the population that comes into the hospital.
Many orthopedic surgeons work in hospitals, and treat only the population that comes into the hospital.

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.

An orthopedic surgeon may have patients with long-term conditions like osteoporosis.
An orthopedic surgeon may have patients with long-term conditions like osteoporosis.

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.

An orthopedic surgeon may treat patients with longer term conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
An orthopedic surgeon may treat patients with longer term conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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