An orthopedist (also spelled orthopaedist) is a medical specialty focusing on injuries and diseases affecting your musculoskeletal system (bones, muscles, joints and soft tissues). Although this type of doctor is a surgeon, they often help people get relief with nonsurgical therapies.
An orthopedist is also known as an orthopedic surgeon. This specialist helps people get relief from pain and mobility problems due to musculoskeletal issues.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
This group of disorders can affect your:
Orthopedic surgeons diagnose and treat a broad range of conditions, including:
Rheumatologists and orthopedists both specialize in diseases affecting your musculoskeletal system. They treat many of the same conditions, including arthritis, back pain and osteoporosis. But there are differences between these medical specialties.
Orthopedists perform surgery. Rheumatologists don’t. Orthopedics focuses on issues due to injury, congenital defects and wear and tear (degenerative disease). Rheumatologists treat conditions that stem from systemic disease, which affects your entire body. Examples include lupus, vasculitis, rheumatoid arthritis and rare inherited disorders.
Rheumatologists and orthopedists often care for people together. For example, if you need rheumatoid arthritis, your rheumatologist and orthopedist might work together, ensuring comprehensive care.
Some orthopedic surgeons are generalists and treat a wide range of conditions. Other orthopedists choose to subspecialize. They have training in advanced treatments for specific groups of diagnoses.
Orthopedic subspecialties include:
Orthopedists have up to 14 years of medical training. This includes four years of undergraduate studies and four years in medical school. Training may include traditional medical school (a doctor of medicine degree, or MD) or osteopathic education (a doctor of osteopathy degree, or DO). Osteopathic doctors use a whole-person approach to care that addresses a person’s mind, body and spirit.
Next, they complete an orthopedic residency. It’s typically five years and provides hands-on learning in a medical setting. Orthopedists who wish to subspecialize complete a one- or two-year fellowship.
After completing medical training, orthopedists can become board certified. They must pass an exam from a certifying organization, like the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery or the American Osteopathic Board of Orthopedic Surgery. Orthopedists must continue to advance their knowledge through regular continuing medical education courses.
You should see an orthopedist if you experience symptoms of a musculoskeletal condition. These include:
First appointments often include:
Some conditions need additional imaging, such as a CT scan or MRI for more in-depth views of the painful area. For these conditions, you might not receive a diagnosis or treatment plan on your first visit. Your orthopedist will recommend therapies to reduce symptoms until you receive a diagnosis.
Orthopedic surgeons specialize in nonsurgical and surgical techniques. For certain types of orthopedic trauma or congenital conditions, surgery is often the first line of treatment.
For most other conditions, orthopedists try nonsurgical therapies first. It may take more than one to achieve lasting relief. It’s common to try a few nonsurgical therapies at the same time. If these options fail to relieve your symptoms, you may wish to consider surgery. Your orthopedist will provide specific recommendations and explain the risks and benefits.
Orthopedists develop personalized care plans that may include:
Orthopedists perform a broad range of procedures. The one that’s right for you depends on your diagnosis.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Orthopedists treat a broad range of musculoskeletal issues in people of all ages. Some specialize in areas such as upper extremity, foot and ankle, and spine conditions. At your appointment, be ready to discuss your symptoms, medical history and therapies you’ve tried. Seeing an orthopedic surgeon doesn’t always mean you’ll end up having surgery. They help many people feel better with nonsurgical therapies, like injections and physical therapy.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/01/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.