Orthopedics is a branch of medicine that focuses on the care of the musculoskeletal system. This system is made up of muscles and bones, as well as joints, ligaments, and tendons.

A person who specializes in orthopedics is known as an orthopedist. Orthopedists use both surgical and nonsurgical approaches to treat a variety of musculoskeletal issues, such as sports injuries, joint pain, and back problems.

This article provides an overview of orthopedics. It outlines the different conditions that orthopedists treat and what people can expect during an orthopedic appointment.

The article also covers the qualifications required to become an orthopedist.

a man getting his leg examined by a doctor in the orthopedics department of a hospitalShare on Pinterest
A person may visit an orthopedist if they have a musculoskeletal condition.

Orthopedics is a branch of medicine that focuses on the care of the skeletal system and its interconnecting parts. These parts include the:

  • bones
  • muscles
  • joints
  • tendons
  • ligaments

An orthopedist often works as part of a larger orthopedic treatment team. This team may include:

  • physician assistants
  • nurse practitioners
  • occupational and physical therapists
  • athletic trainers

Orthopedists treat a wide variety of musculoskeletal conditions. These conditions may be present from birth, or they may occur as a result of injury or age-related wear and tear.

Below are some of the most common conditions that an orthopedist may treat:

During the first appointment, the orthopedist will work to diagnose the person’s condition. This normally includes conducting a physical examination and taking X-rays.

Sometimes, the orthopedist will use an in-office procedure, such as an injection, to help make the diagnosis or treat the condition.

In some instances, additional testing will be necessary to confirm the diagnosis.

Diagnosis

In order to help diagnose a person’s condition, the orthopedist will:

  • ask about the person’s symptoms
  • review the person’s medical record to gather more information about their medical history and overall health
  • carry out a physical examination
  • review any X-rays conducted before the appointment

The orthopedist may also order additional diagnostic tests. These may include:

  • an MRI scan
  • a CT scan
  • a bone scan
  • an ultrasound
  • nerve conduction studies
  • blood tests

In-office procedures

An orthopedist may carry out in-office procedures to help diagnose and treat certain musculoskeletal conditions.

X-rays are the “most common and widely available diagnostic imaging technique.” An orthopedist will often perform X-rays in-office, allowing them to diagnose certain conditions during a person’s appointment.

Some acute injuries, such as fractures and dislocations, will require the orthopedist to manipulate (reset) the bone or joint and immobilize it using a splint, cast, or brace.

Treatment options

If a person’s orthopedist is not able to offer in-office treatment for a particular condition, they will discuss the various treatment options that are available for the condition.

For chronic musculoskeletal disorders, such as back pain or arthritis, the orthopedist may recommend one or more of the following treatments:

  • over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications
  • rehabilitation and physical therapy
  • home exercise programs
  • injections
  • acupuncture
  • mobility aids
  • surgery, though this is a last resort

An orthopedist may specialize in a particular branch of orthopedic medicine. These branches are called subspecialties.

Some orthopedic subspecialties include:

  • hand and upper extremity
  • foot and ankle
  • musculoskeletal oncology (tumor)
  • pediatric orthopedics
  • sports medicine
  • spine surgery
  • trauma surgery
  • joint replacement surgery

The sections below look at some surgical procedures that an orthopedist may perform as part of their work.

Total joint replacement

A total joint replacement (TJR), or arthroplasty, is a surgical procedure that replaces the damaged joint with a prosthesis, which usually consists of some combination of metal and plastic.

TJR surgery is one of the most commonly performed elective surgeries in the United States.

Arthroscopic surgery

Arthroscopic surgery is a minimally invasive procedure that uses a device called an arthroscope to diagnose joint problems.

An arthroscope is a long, thin camera that an orthopedic surgeon will insert into a person’s joint, most commonly the knee or shoulder. The camera is connected to a video monitor that allows them to see the inside of the joint.

By making small additional incisions, the surgeon can use a number of small, thin instruments to fix a wide variety of problems.

Arthroscopic surgery of the knee is the most common type of orthopedic surgery performed in the U.S. An orthopedist may perform arthroscopic surgery to repair common joint injuries, such as meniscus tears, ACL tears, and rotator cuff tears.

Fracture repair surgery

Sometimes, an orthopedic surgeon needs to perform an operation to repair a more severely broken bone. To stabilize the bone, they can use a number of different types of implants. These include rods, plates, screws, and wires.

Bone grafting surgery

In bone grafting surgery, an orthopedic surgeon uses bone from elsewhere in the body to repair and strengthen diseased or damaged bones.

They may also source this bone from another person.

Spinal fusion

Spinal fusion is a surgical procedure that fuses together adjoining vertebrae of the spine. This procedure allows the vertebrae to heal into a single, solid mass of bone.

An orthopedic spine surgeon may perform a spinal fusion for a number of back and neck problems, including injuries to the vertebrae or intervertebral disks and scoliosis.

In order to become an orthopedic surgeon, a person must:

  • graduate from an accredited medical school with a Doctor of Medicine or a Doctor of Osteopathy degree
  • complete 5 years of training in an orthopedic residency program approved by either the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education or the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada
  • obtain a medical license and optional board certification
  • complete continuing medical education and exams to stay current and maintain certification

Following the completion of the 5-year residency program, many orthopedic surgeons choose to complete an additional 1 or 2 years of fellowship training in one of the subspecialty areas listed above.

Orthopedics is a medical specialty that focuses on treating injuries and diseases of the musculoskeletal system. Some of these conditions are present at birth, while others may occur as a result of injury or age-related wear and tear.

Orthopedists often work as part of a broader orthopedic team that may include physician assistants, nurse practitioners, athletic trainers, and occupational or physical therapists. Together, they help diagnose, treat, and rehabilitate people with musculoskeletal conditions or injuries.

All orthopedists must undergo extensive training in order to obtain their medical license. They must continue ongoing education and training to maintain it.