Orthopedic doctors treat patients for issues affecting the spine and joints resulting from a range of causes, such as birth defects, trauma, and conditions like arthritis that tend to increase in prevalence as a person ages. Physicians who specialize in orthopedics tend to broken bones from sports injuries and other accidents as well as illnesses that affect the joints and bones, such as osteoporosis and bone tumors.
Also called orthopedists, these doctors treat patients in many different settings, including hospitals, surgical centers and private practices. Some further specialize, treating mainly children, aging patients or athletes, or specializing in spinal disorders; plastic surgery; treatment of knee and hip issues, including joint replacement surgery.
Orthopedists may also refer patients to physical therapists, who treat a wider population of patients by helping strengthen muscles that affect the joints. They offer information on proper exercises and supplement treatment with heat, ice, electrical stimulation and ultrasound. Many patients see physical therapists rather than undergo surgery, as well as in addition to it.
A growing number of orthopedic doctors perform surgery to combat a high prevalence of sports injuries and an aging population that seeks to remain active. Doctors in other health care fields often consult with orthopedists, as needed, to improve care their patients, such as for treatment of back pain.
Orthopedic surgeons perform many different kinds of procedures, such as replacing knee or hip replacement, ACL reconstruction and repair of other torn ligaments, resetting bones and treating soft tissue damage. Some perform surgeries on the feet and ankles or to correct damage to the spine.
Orthopedists also help patients by applying casts for broken bones and back braces on those with spinal injuries. They treat patients who are in pain because of carpal tunnel or repetitive motion injury from work or sports. Frequently, they see patients who have long-term health conditions, such as cerebral palsy, arthritis or brittle bone disease.
Qualifications of orthopedic doctors
It takes about 13 years of schooling to become an orthopedic physician: an undergraduate degree in the sciences, such as biology or chemistry, medical school, a five-year residency in orthopedics and possibly a one-year fellowship in an area of specialization.
If you think you need to see a local orthopedic doctor, start by asking your primary care physician for referrals. Check with your insurance to make sure it provides coverage for a particular doctor or practice in advance of setting an appointment. See their listed qualifications, accepted insurance plans and affiliated hospitals by consulting Angie's List. There, you'll also find member reviews and rankings for orthopedic doctors.
When you meet with an orthopedist, ask about their experience, including in any area which they may specialize, and their approach to treatment. Expect a frank discussion of risks and benefits before undergoing any treatment or procedure. Look to for a doctor who will discuss preventive care, such as losing weight or exercising, that can make a major difference in a patient's recovery and long-term health.
Shoulder and arm orthopedics
If you have a condition or disease that affects your shoulder or arm, that usually lies outside a general physician's area of expertise. A new perspective from an orthopedist can help diagnose and mend the problem.
Some orthopedists specialize in diseases and conditions that affect the hips. These doctors can diagnose and help treat problems that affect the hip.
LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Hip Orthopedics
Hand and wrist orthopedics
If you break or dislocate your wrist or hand, you need to seek treatment from an orthopedist. An orthopedist can also help treat conditions including carpal bossing, flexor tendon sheath infections, jersey finger, boutonniére deformity, swan neck deformity, mallet finger and trigger finger. Many of these finger conditions cause difficulty with straightening your finger or pointing it down.
LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Hand and Wrist Orthopedics
Foot and ankle orthopedics
Orthopedics can also help treat foot and ankle problems. Problems with the ankle may include Achilles tendonitis, posterior tibiae tendonitis, fractures, cartilage damage and gout, as well as arthritis and a variety of sprains. Other issues may include heel pain, posterior heel pain, toe pain, bunions and arch pain.
If you are unsure of why you're experiencing pain in your feet or ankles, you should seek medical attention.
LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Foot and Ankle Orthopedics
Some orthopedic doctors specialize in treating the bones, tendons and muscles of the knee. These doctors treat injuries including ACL tears and bone fractures, as well as forms of arthritis affecting the knee.
LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Knee Orthopedics
Spine and neck orthopedics
Spine doctors focus on patients suffering from pain, injuries and abnormalities in the neck and spine, along with the underlying connective joints and tendons, tissues, muscles, ligaments and bones. Treatment may include application of ice packs or moist heat, physical therapy or rehabilitation, or, in some cases, surgery.
LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Spine and Neck Orthopedics
A pediatric orthopedic surgeon has specific training in treating problems in the limbs of children. Children have different medical needs than adults because their bones are still growing and developing. A pediatric orthopedic surgeon knows about these differences, which is essential in treating young patients.
LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Pediatric Orthopedics
Sometimes joint pain is caused by rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. These diseases, which can be autoimmune and difficult to treat, are most often diagnosed and treated by rheumatologists who are trained to spot these conditions.
LEARN MORE: Angie's List Guide to Rheumatology