What Is an Orthopaedic Surgeon?
Orthopaedics (also called orthopaedic surgery) is the medical specialty that focuses on injuries and diseases of your body's musculoskeletal system. This complex system, which includes your bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves, allows you to move, work, and be active.
Once devoted to the care of children with spine and limb deformities, orthopaedists now care for patients of all ages, from newborns with clubfeet to young athletes requiring arthroscopic surgery to older people with arthritis. And anybody can break a bone at any age.
What Does an Orthopaedic Surgeon Do?
Orthopaedic surgeons treat problems of the musculoskeletal system. This involves:
- Diagnosis of your injury or disorder
- Treatment with medication, injections, casting, bracing, surgery, or other options
- Rehabilitation by recommending exercises or physical therapy to restore movement, strength, and function
- Prevention with information and treatment plans to prevent injury or slow the progression of disease
While orthopaedic surgeons are familiar with all aspects of the musculoskeletal system, many orthopaedists specialize in certain areas, such as:
- Foot and ankle
- Hand and wrist
- Hip replacement and reconstruction
- Knee replacement and reconstruction
- Orthopaedic oncology (bone tumors)
- Orthopaedic trauma
- Pediatric orthopaedic surgery
- Shoulder and elbow
- Sports medicine
Some orthopaedic surgeons may specialize in multiple areas, and several different types of specialists may treat the same conditions. For instance, sports medicine surgeons, shoulder and elbow surgeons, and hand and wrist surgeons all perform surgery on the elbow.
Education and Training
Your orthopaedic surgeon is a medical doctor with extensive training in the proper diagnosis and treatment of injuries and diseases of the musculoskeletal system. They have completed up to 14 years of formal education, including:
- Four years of study in a college or university
- Four years of study in medical school
- Five years of training in an orthopaedic residency
- One or more additional years of fellowship in a specialized area
After establishing a licensed practice, your orthopaedic surgeon has demonstrated mastery of orthopaedic knowledge by passing certifying examinations given by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery (ABOS), American Osteopathic Board of Orthopaedic Surgery (AOBOS), or Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. They will continue in a career-long Maintenance of Certification (MOC) process, spending many hours studying, attending continuing medical education courses, and taking self-assessment exams to stay up-to-date.
Certain orthopaedic surgeons meet the qualifications to use the FAAOS letters after their name or to include the logo on their website. This stands for "Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons." This is a professional designation that sets them apart from other providers on the bone and joint healthcare team. The FAAOS designation not only distinguishes your orthopaedic surgeon from other healthcare specialists, but also signifies their commitment to continuous education, professional development, and the highest quality of care you expect to receive.
Learn more: What is FAAOS?
When to See an Orthopaedic Surgeon
Some musculoskeletal injuries are considered emergencies and require immediate medical attention. Go to the nearest emergency room (ER) if you have:
- A broken bone — especially if it is an open fracture (the bone is visible) or you have multiple fractures
- Intense pain or other concerning symptoms, like a fever, inability to bear weight or move your limb, severe bleeding, or loss of consciousness
Your primary care doctor can be a good first stop if you are experiencing musculoskeletal symptoms and do not know the cause.
But in many instances, it is reasonable to start with an orthopaedic specialist — either a primary care orthopaedist or an orthopaedic surgeon — for most musculoskeletal symptoms and conditions, including:
- Constant or occasional pain that lasts more than 3 months
- Limited range of motion
- Symptoms that affect your daily function
- Difficulty standing or moving around
- An acute injury that is not responding to simple measures, such as ice or over-the-counter pain medications.
If you have been told by another doctor that you need surgery, your next step should be to schedule an appointment with an orthopaedic surgeon. You can also see an orthopaedic surgeon to get a second opinion about either a diagnosis or a treatment recommendation.
It is important to note that seeing an orthopaedic surgeon does not necessarily mean you will end up having surgery. Because of their training, orthopaedic surgeons are uniquely qualified to determine whether surgery is your best option and, if so, which procedure(s) will give you the best results.
Learn more: Finding the Right Orthopaedic Surgeon
Contributed and/or Updated by
AAOS does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products, or physicians referenced herein. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, or locate one in your area through the AAOS Find an Orthopaedist program on this website.