Orthopedics is the medical field that focuses on diseases and conditions that affect your musculoskeletal system. This includes your:

  • bones
  • muscles
  • ligaments and tendons
  • joints
  • nerves

People often visit an orthopedic doctor when they’re injured or when they have a chronic condition, such as arthritis or lower back pain.

In this article, we’ll take a deeper dive into what orthopedic doctors do, the conditions they treat, and how to find the right orthopedic doctor for you.

Orthopedic doctors, often referred to as orthopedic surgeons, focus on helping you with musculoskeletal issues. Their duties include:

  • diagnosing and treating conditions that affect your musculoskeletal system
  • assisting with rehabilitation, which helps you regain movement, strength, range of motion, and flexibility following an injury or surgery
  • forming strategies to prevent injury or to keep chronic conditions, such as arthritis, from worsening

While orthopedic doctors know about all parts of the musculoskeletal system, some choose to specialize further. Some subspecialty areas of orthopedics include:

  • spine
  • hip and knee
  • hand
  • shoulder and elbow
  • foot and ankle
  • sports medicine
  • trauma surgery

Orthopedic doctors treat a wide variety of conditions, including but not limited to the following:

Orthopedic doctors recommend a variety of treatments and procedures for the conditions they handle.

Let’s explore some of them in more detail below.

Nonsurgical treatments

These types of treatments are also called conservative treatments. Orthopedic doctors will often focus on nonsurgical treatments first before recommending surgery.

Some types of nonsurgical treatments include:

  • Exercises. Your orthopedic doctor may recommend specific exercises or stretches to help maintain or improve your strength, flexibility, and range of motion in a particular area.
  • Immobilization. Sometimes preventing additional strain to an area can help it to heal. Examples of immobilization techniques include braces, splints, and casts.
  • Medications. Your orthopedic doctor may recommend certain medications to help relieve symptoms like pain and swelling. Some examples include over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen and aspirin. They may also prescribe certain prescription drugs like corticosteroids and anti-inflammatory medicine.
  • Lifestyle changes. Your orthopedic doctor may also help you with making lifestyle changes. These can involve modifying your physical activity, diet, and the ways you exercise to prevent aggravation of an injury or condition.

Surgical treatments

Sometimes a condition or injury doesn’t improve with conservative measures. In these cases, your doctor may recommend surgery. Some examples of operations performed by an orthopedic surgeon include:

  • Joint replacement. Joint replacement surgery involves replacing the parts of a joint that have become damaged or diseased, usually secondary to arthritis. Examples include knee replacement and hip replacement surgery.
  • Internal fixation. Internal fixation involves the placement of hardware such as pins, screws, plates, and rods to help hold broken bones in place while they’re healing.
  • Fusion. This involves using bone graft material plus some form of internal fixation to connect two bones together. As the bone tissue heals, it fuses into one bone. This technique is often used in neck and spine surgery.
  • Osteotomy. Osteotomy is a type of surgery that involves cutting a part of a bone and then repositioning it. This type of surgery may sometimes be used to treat arthritis.
  • Soft tissue repair. This kind of surgery is used to repair severely damaged muscles, ligaments, or tendons.
  • Release surgery. This is a type of surgery that’s performed for carpal tunnel syndrome. It helps to relieve symptoms by reducing pressure on the median nerve.

You may need to see an orthopedic doctor if you have:

  • pain or swelling in a bone, joint, or muscle that’s persistent, recurring, or doesn’t respond to at-home care
  • a significant decrease in the mobility or range of motion of a joint, such as your knee, elbow, or shoulder
  • trouble performing your daily activities
  • nerve-related symptoms, such as numbness and tingling or a “pins and needles” sensation in your arms or legs
  • an injury to a bone or joint that needs the attention of a specialist

There’s a lot of training involved in becoming an orthopedic surgeon. In fact, in the United States, an orthopedist has to complete up to 14 years of education and training.

This includes completing the following:

  • an undergraduate program at a college or university (4 years)
  • medical school (4 years)
  • a residency focused on orthopedics (5 years)
  • a fellowship to subspecialize in one of the areas listed above (1 year)

To confirm that they’re proficient in the field of orthopedics, an orthopedic doctor must also pass a certifying examination.

This exam is given by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery or the American Osteopathic Board of Orthopedic Surgery.

Once board certified, an orthopedic surgeon must renew their certification every 10 years by completing continuing education courses as well as exams.

If you need to see an orthopedic doctor, these are a few steps you can take:

  • Talk to your primary care doctor. Your primary care doctor may be able to recommend or refer you to an orthopedic surgeon in your area.
  • Search online. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) has an online search tool that can help you find an orthopedic doctor near you.
  • Ask a friend or family member. If someone close to you has had a similar condition, they may be able to recommend an orthopedic surgeon that they had a good experience with.
  • Read online reviews or use social media. Online reviews may provide you with some insight into the orthopedic surgeon’s training, abilities, and success with treating various conditions. Reaching out on neighborhood apps or social media may also help you find a doctor who’s a good fit for you.

While looking for an orthopedic doctor, you’ll want to know if they’re covered under your insurance. If they aren’t, you may end up paying out-of-pocket costs that you didn’t plan for.

Often, insurance will cover care that’s considered medically necessary to diagnose or treat a specific condition.

However, it’s always a good idea to contact your insurance company to learn more about what’s covered before visiting an orthopedic doctor.

What about Medicare and Medicaid?

Medicare is a federal health insurance program for adults over the age of 65, as well as some other younger groups with specific chronic health conditions. People with Medicare often have either:

  • Original Medicare (Part A and Part B). Part B is the outpatient medical insurance portion of original Medicare. It covers nonhospital based medical services that are considered necessary to diagnose or treat a specific condition.
  • Medicare Advantage (Part C). Part C plans are offered by private insurance companies. Advantage plans are required to cover the same basic benefits as original Medicare but may also offer additional benefits.

Medicaid is a joint federal and state program that provides assistance with healthcare costs to those with lower incomes or resources. Eligibility and what exactly is covered varies from state to state.

Some research, both recent and older, has indicated that people with Medicare or Medicaid may have trouble accessing timely orthopedic care.

However, there are tools you can use to find doctors that accept these programs:

  • For Medicare. Use the Physician Compare tool. This allows you to input a variety of information in order to find doctors in your area that accept Medicare.
  • For Medicaid. Contact your state’s Medicaid office to find out which doctors in your state accept Medicaid.

Orthopedic surgeons diagnose and treat conditions affecting your bones, muscles, and joints.

Treatment can include conservative measures, such as exercise and medication, or in some instances, operations like total knee replacement.

Orthopedic doctors can also assist with rehabilitation and help prevent the symptoms of an existing condition from getting worse.

Some examples of conditions that orthopedic doctors treat include:

  • bone fractures
  • arthritis
  • back or joint pain

You may also find that some orthopedic doctors subspecialize in a specific area of orthopedics, such as:

  • sports medicine
  • hand surgery
  • orthopedic trauma

To find an orthopedic surgeon, you can ask your primary care doctor for a referral or search an online database like the one provided by the AAOS.

To minimize any out-of-pocket expenses, ensure that the physician you choose is part of your health insurance company’s network and plan.