Orthopedic Doctor: What They Do and When to See One

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on April 25, 2024
8 min read

Orthopedic doctors specialize in injuries of the musculoskeletal system, which includes muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons.

The field of orthopedics was first developed to treat children with crippling diseases. Today, orthopedic doctors treat patients of all ages.

Almost everyone experiences joint and muscle pain at some point in their life, and many people have musculoskeletal injuries that require medical attention. If you need special tests and treatment for your injury, you’ll likely see an orthopedic doctor.

Orthopedic doctors diagnose and treat injuries resulting from sports or physical activity, overuse, aging, and more. They’re also called orthopedists. They may do surgical or nonsurgical treatments.

In general, orthopedists will try nonsurgical treatments first. For example, they might suggest pain medications, splints or braces, physical therapy, or other options before a surgical procedure.

Orthopedic pain management

There are a variety of musculoskeletal conditions and injuries that can cause discomfort and pain. Orthopedic doctors can help relieve the pain or even stop it entirely.

Orthopedic doctors specialize in treating pain in the following body parts:

Improving range of motion

Pain, stiffness, and swelling of the joints can cause you to lose range of motion — which is how well you're able to move a joint or stretch a part of your body. When this happens, it can be difficult to handle daily tasks, including showering, cleaning, and bending over. Orthopedic doctors help to get your range of motion back to normal through physical therapy or other treatments.

Injury prevention and treatment

Orthopedists regularly treat broken bones, muscle injuries, and tendon tears or ruptures. They also make a plan to help you avoid future injuries.

Orthopedic surgery

Some orthopedic conditions, such as broken bones and some sports injuries, need surgery. An orthopedist can perform these surgeries and take care of you before and afterward.

Orthopedic doctors must go through traditional medical school training, including academic work toward their Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. They then complete a 5- to 7-year residency. As interns, they work in a hospital in various medical specialties. During their residency, they work under the supervision of licensed doctors. In the beginning, they start with simple tasks and take on more responsibilities over time.

In addition, every state currently requires medical students to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Three sets of exams are required to get national licensure.

Orthopedic surgeons may also pursue Board Certification. A valid medical license is required to become Board Certified, but certification is not necessary for licensure. A board-certified orthopedic surgeon has met the standards and passed the tests assuring their patients that they have been adequately trained in orthopedics.

Orthopedic doctors can diagnose and make treatment plans for countless musculoskeletal conditions, including:

Orthopedic arthritis treatment

This is when the cartilage (cushioning) around your joints wears down as you get older. The affected joints might become swollen, painful, and difficult to move. Your doctor might suggest remedies including low-impact exercises (such as swimming and weight lifting), pain medications, a brace or other supportive devices, heat or cold treatment, or acupuncture. In severe cases, they might recommend surgery.

Orthopedic oncology

Orthopedists work with oncologists in the treatment of cancer of the bones, muscles, soft tissues, or blood vessels. You’ll be treated by an orthopedic oncologist, who is an orthopedist with specialized training in cancer. They can help decide if you need surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

This is when a nerve on your wrist becomes strained from overuse. An orthopedist can show you how to change your posture to better support your wrist. They also might suggest a splint, over-the-counter pain medicines, or steroids. If those don’t work, they can perform carpal tunnel release surgery. For this surgery, they’ll cut a ligament in your wrist to lower the pressure on your nerve and surrounding muscles, giving them more space.

Hip dysplasia

This is a condition where your hip socket doesn’t develop properly and causes pain and difficulty walking. It's often present from birth. Treatments depend on your age and the severity of your condition. Orthopedic doctors may recommend braces for babies and children, or a procedure called a periacetabular osteotomy for young adults. This is when the surgeon makes small cuts in the bone to reshape the hip socket. They can also do an arthroscopy, which is when they thread a tiny camera through a small surgical cut on your hip. The camera helps them look at your hip socket and make minor repairs. If you're older, you might need a hip replacement.


This is when your bones weaken, usually from getting older. It could put you at risk for broken bones. An orthopedist can treat this with medicines, vitamin supplements, and physical therapy.


Sciatica is pain in the nerves in your lower back and upper legs. It can result from inflammation or pinching of nerves. You can often treat it at home with ice, heat, over-the-counter medicines, and stretching. But severe or long-lasting sciatica might need medication, physical therapy, acupuncture, or surgery.


This is when your spine curves in an abnormal way. It can cause weakness, soreness, difficulty walking, or no symptoms at all. An orthopedist will keep an eye on your spine and prescribe braces if needed. They can correct severe cases with surgery.


This is when a tendon (connective tissue between muscle and bone) becomes strained and painful to move. It can be caused by overuse or injury. You can try treating it at home with rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain medications. But if it doesn’t get better, you might need to get steroid shots or physical therapy. An orthopedist can operate on it in rare, severe cases.

Sprains and strains

These injuries can be caused by overuse or overstretching. Sprains are ligament injuries, and strains are muscle or tendon injuries. Both can cause swelling. You can treat mild ones at home with rest, ice, compression, and elevation. For more severe cases, your orthopedist might suggest a sling or brace, physical therapy, shots of pain medication, or surgery.

Some orthopedists specialize in sports medicine. Not all sports medicine doctors are orthopedists, though. Others are trained in emergency medicine, pediatrics, or rehabilitation. But only orthopedists can perform surgeries.

Sports medicine doctors are best known for working with athletes. But they also work with anyone who has a musculoskeletal injury. You might see them on the sidelines at sporting events, clinics, hospitals, or rehabilitation centers.

Orthopedists can help athletes and others to prevent and treat injuries. This is especially important if you’ve had a previous injury, which can raise your risk of getting another one. Even if you haven’t had a sports injury, an orthopedist can give you advice on how to safely perform your best.

They often treat conditions such as:

  • Broken bones
  • Strains
  • Sprains
  • Dislocations
  • Achilles tendon injuries
  • Rotator cuff injuries
  • Torn meniscus

Persistent pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical help from orthopedic doctors.

You might see an orthopedic doctor because:

  • You’re seeing a noticeable decrease in your range of motion
  • You can’t walk without pain or discomfort
  • You have moderate or advanced arthritis of the knee or hip
  • You have progressive hip or knee pain that worsens upon standing
  • Your daily life is affected by your pain and discomfort
  • You have chronic pain (lasting more than 12 weeks)
  • You have a soft tissue injury that has not improved after several days

Wondering if you should go directly to an orthopedic specialist or see your primary care doctor first? If there is a possibility that you have a traumatic or repetitive motion injury to a bone, joint, tendon, or nerve, you should see an orthopedic doctor as soon as possible. Otherwise, you can see your regular doctor. They'll assess your symptoms and then refer you to an orthopedic doctor if necessary.

When you arrive at your orthopedic doctor’s office, the medical team will ask questions about the location, severity, and onset of your pain. They will likely also ask about your medical history and physical activity level — all to understand how your pain affects your day-to-day activities.

The doctor might also look at your injury or ask you to move it. Then, they’ll suggest some tests. These tests will help them figure out what’s going on.

Range of motion tests

These tests measure how well you can move your ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers. To do this, the doctor will gently move your body part as far as it can go. Then, they’ll ask you to move it by yourself. It probably won’t go as far, and that’s okay. Each time, they’ll measure the angle of the nearest joint. The whole test will probably take 5-30 minutes or more.

You might take these tests more than once. This helps you see how your ability to move changes over time.

Orthopedic imaging

These tests take pictures of your bones, muscles, and more. They show what’s going on inside your body.

Your orthopedist might suggest:

X-ray. This takes a picture of your bones.

Fluoroscopy. This makes a video of how your bones move.

MRI. This test uses a magnet and radio waves to make detailed pictures. It’s especially good at showing soft tissue (not bones).

CT scan. This test uses a low dose of radiation to make a detailed 3D picture of what’s going on inside your body.

Ultrasound. This helps doctors look at soft tissue. You might also hear it called a sonogram.

An orthopedic doctor (also called an orthopedist) treats injuries and diseases involving muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons. These include conditions such as arthritis, hip dysplasia, scoliosis, bone cancer, back pain, and sports injuries. They can provide surgical and nonsurgical treatments. If you have joint pain, inflammation, or difficulty moving, you should consider visiting an orthopedist.

What is the difference between an orthopedic doctor and an orthopedist?

An orthopedist is another name for an orthopedic doctor or orthopedic surgeon.

Why would someone be referred to an orthopedic doctor?

You might go to an orthopedic doctor if you have joint pain, inflammation, or difficulty moving.

What are the duties of an orthopedic doctor?

An orthopedic doctor treats diseases and injuries involving your muscles and skeleton. This includes conditions such as arthritis, hip dysplasia, sports injuries, and bone cancer.