Overview

Overview

Overview

If you play sports, are in your 40s or 50s, or have family and friends who are physically active, you’ve probably heard of the word "orthopedics.”

But do you know what orthopedic doctors really do? And how do you know if you could benefit from seeing one?

What Does an Orthopedic Doctor Do?

Orthopedic doctors (sometimes also called orthopaedic doctors or orthopaedic surgeons) are doctors who focus on caring for your bones, joints, ligaments, nerves, and tendons (the tissue that connects bones and joints). These parts of your body are also referred to as your “musculoskeletal system.”

Orthopedic doctors:

  • diagnose and treat injuries caused by sports or physical activity;
  • help you manage conditions that usually get worse over time, like arthritis or osteoporosis; and
  • help you avoid pain and discomfort from using a muscle or joint too often (also called “overuse injuries”).

Orthopedic doctors specialize in treating these parts of the body:

  • hand and wrist
  • foot and ankle
  • knee
  • shoulder and elbow
  • neck
  • back
  • hips

Do Orthopedic Doctors Have to Perform Surgery?

It’s a common misconception that orthopedic doctors always recommend surgery to treat bone and joint problems.

In most cases, surgery is a last resort.

Instead, your orthopedic doctor will most likely recommend non-surgical treatments like:

  • rest
  • physical therapy or rehab
  • medications/injections
  • lifestyle change (when your doctor helps you find other activities that don’t aggravate your injury)

What Do You See an Orthopedic Doctor For?

Many people see orthopedic doctors for pain or injuries that are caused by physical activity or sports.

For example, if you’re an avid mountain biker and your knee hurts, you may benefit from seeing an orthopedic doctor who’s a specialist in treating knee problems.

But orthopedic doctors treat a wide range of problems beyond sports injuries. People see orthopedic doctors to get advanced treatment for these problems:

  • back pain
  • arthritis
  • fractures
  • broken bones
  • torn ligaments & muscles
  • muscle strains & sprains
  • work injuries
  • bone tumors
  • age-related conditions like osteoporosis

Even though primary care doctors treat some of the same injuries, it can be a good idea to see a doctor who’s an expert in treating these problems.

That’s because orthopedic doctors have advanced knowledge and training beyond your primary care doctor to treat musculoskeletal problems.

Different orthopedic doctors specialize even further in specific areas of your body—like your hip, ankle and foot, or shoulder.

Some orthopedic doctors specialize in treating children. Pediatric orthopedists monitor bone growth problems in children—like scoliosis—or developmental problems that children are born with, like clubfoot or hip dysplasia.

When to See an Orthopedic Doctor

One in seven Americans will have an orthopedic problem at some point in their life, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. A lot of muscle and joint pain is short-term. It will go away on its own, especially after an injury.

But if your pain lasts more than 12 weeks, you may want to consider seeing an orthopedic doctor, especially if:

  • you can’t move as much as you used to (reduced range of motion),
  • you feel wobbly when you walk or stand, or
  • you have a hard time doing everyday activities, like walking up stairs.

Do You Have to Be Referred to an Orthopedic Doctor?

Fortunately, if you need to see an orthopedic specialist, there’s a good chance your primary care doctor will refer you to one. (If you show up at an urgent care center with an injury, urgent care may refer you too).

But if you have long-lasting pain or discomfort, you may want to consider making an appointment on your own without a doctor’s referral.

If this sounds like your situation, it can be helpful to understand what orthopedic doctors do so you know if it’s beneficial to see one.

What to Expect at an Orthopedic Appointment

During your appointment, your orthopedic doctor will ask you about your physical activity habits as well as any pain or discomfort you have. Your orthopedic doctor’s goal is to understand how your day-to-day habits may be affecting your pain, and how you’ve been managing it so far.

Then, your doctor will review your medical history by looking at any past tests you’ve had. Your doctor may also order X-rays, blood tests, or other tests.

Your doctor’s goals are to:

  • correctly diagnose your problem,
  • decrease your pain, and
  • help you get back to activities you love, like gardening or biking.

Next Steps

If you think you could benefit from seeing an orthopedic specialist, make an appointment.