What Is an Orthopedic Surgeon?

Medically Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo, MD on September 23, 2023
3 min read

Your bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles make up your musculoskeletal system. It is common to have pain in these parts of your body because they play such an important part in everyday movement.

Orthopedics is the medical field devoted to treating these areas. An orthopedic surgeon or orthopedic doctor (also called an orthopedist) is a doctor who specializes in this field. They can perform surgery, but they're also qualified to diagnose and treat issues using other techniques.

Orthopedics is a vast field, so most orthopedic doctors specialize in a particular type of orthopedics. For example, some of the most common specialties within orthopedics are hand, foot, and sports injuries.

Orthopedists are specialists. Typically, you see an orthopedist after your primary care doctor refers you. Your primary care doctor can let you know what type of orthopedist you need to see for your issue.

An orthopedic surgeon is qualified to diagnose orthopedic problems, perform or prescribe treatments, and assist with rehabilitation. They can also help you develop long-term strategies to treat illnesses, disorders, and issues relating to your bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles.

There are a broad range of procedures, including ankle, knee, hip, spinal, hand, and neck surgeries that this type of doctor can perform. Typically, they’ll attempt to treat an issue in the most holistic and least intrusive way possible, which may not be surgery.

To become an orthopedic surgeon, a person must complete at least 13 years of education, including: 

  • A bachelor’s degree
  • Medical school 
  • A 5-year residency in orthopedic surgery at a major medical institution 
  • One year of education within an orthopedic subspecialty (optional)

After they complete their 5-year residency, a prospective orthopedic surgeon must practice in the field for 2 years and then take a final exam to be officially recognized by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery.

Most commonly, people see an orthopedic doctor because they’re having pain in a joint, muscle, or bone -- or any discomfort relating to movement. If your body hurts, is stiff, is often swollen, or if you have an injury in your joints, bones, muscles, or ligaments, you may want to see an orthopedic surgeon. 

Another sign that you should see an orthopedic doctor is if your range of motion is diminished. Orthopedic doctors can help you regain your ability to move in specific ways. 

If you have a serious injury, orthopedic surgeons can help with recovery and also help you prevent further injuries. This is why athletes often work with orthopedic surgeons. Typical injuries an orthopedic surgeon might treat are:

  • Torn or broken (ruptured) ligaments
  • Torn or broken tendons
  • Broken bones that won’t heal with just a cast
  • Spine or hip fractures from osteoporosis

You don’t need to have an injury to see an orthopedic surgeon. Many people see them because of long-lasting aches, pains, or loss of mobility.

You may have these kinds of problems due to an old injury. They may develop over time. It’s important to talk to your doctor and keep them informed if you feel pain.

You might see an orthopedic surgeon for treatment of bone and soft-tissue (ligaments and tendons) problems due to longer-term illnesses like:

  • Arthritis
  • Bursitis
  • Chronic muscle and joint pain
  • Non-cancerous (benign) tumors
  • Cancerous tumors that start in the bone (sarcomas)
  • Cancerous tumors that spread to bone from somewhere else (metastatic)
  • Blood cancers like multiple myeloma  that can weaken bones

Your treatment plan may include surgery, medication, or physical therapy.

When you first see an orthopedic surgeon, they’ll ask you about your medical history and symptoms. Be sure to bring medical records or previous testing documentation that you have.

To diagnose your condition, your doctor may give you a test or a series of tests. Depending on your symptoms, these tests can include X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs). They can also include physical tests.

It’s also possible that your orthopedic surgeon will diagnose you without doing any tests. In this case, they may simply ask you questions to determine what is causing your problems.

Once you have received a diagnosis, you and your doctor will discuss treatment options and decide what is best for you. This could be surgery, some sort of cast or taping system, or even physical exercise.