Orthopedic Surgeon (Orthopedist)

An orthopedic surgeon (orthopedist) is a medical specialist who focuses 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.

What is an orthopedic surgeon?

An orthopedic surgeon is also known as an orthopedist (sometimes it's spelled orthopaedic surgeon or orthopaedist). This specialist helps people get relief from pain and mobility problems due to musculoskeletal issues.


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What are musculoskeletal issues?

This group of disorders can affect your:

What does an orthopedic surgeon treat?

Orthopedic surgeons diagnose and treat a broad range of conditions, including:


What is the difference between a rheumatologist and an orthopedic surgeon?

Rheumatologists and orthopedic surgeons (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. Orthopedic surgeons focus 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 have rheumatoid arthritis, your rheumatologist and orthopedist might work together, ensuring comprehensive care.

What does an orthopedic surgeon do?

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:

  • Foot and ankle surgery.
  • Hand and upper extremity surgery.
  • Joint replacement.
  • Orthopedic oncology, which includes tumor and cancer care.
  • Orthopedic trauma.
  • Pediatric orthopedic surgery.
  • Spine surgery.
  • Sports medicine.

What type of medical training do orthopedists undergo?

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.

When should I see an orthopedic surgeon (orthopedist)?

You should see an orthopedic surgeon (orthopedist) if you experience symptoms of a musculoskeletal condition. These include:

  • Grinding, snapping or popping when you move the affected joint.
  • Inflammation and swelling.
  • Joint pain.
  • Numbness or tingling.
  • Restricted movement due to pain.
  • Stiffness.

What should I expect during my first appointment?

First appointments often include:

  • Discussing your symptoms, medical history and lifestyle.
  • A physical exam, including moving the affected joint in specific ways.
  • Imaging studies, such as an X-ray.
  • Explanation of your diagnosis.
  • Treatment recommendations.

Some conditions need additional imaging, like 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.

If I’m seeing an orthopedic surgeon, does it mean I’ll end up having surgery?

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 type of therapy 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.

What types of nonsurgical therapies do orthopedic surgeons offer?

Orthopedic surgeons (orthopedists) develop personalized care plans that may include:

  • Devices that hold bones or joints in a specific position to aid healing, like braces, slings, casts or splints.
  • Joint injections like cortisone or other steroid medication, or viscosupplementation.
  • Non-opioid medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Physical therapy to loosen stiff muscles or improve muscle strength.
  • Occupational therapy to help you perform everyday tasks like getting dressed.
  • Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy, an investigational treatment.
  • Orthotics, custom shoe inserts that support proper foot positioning.

What types of surgeries do orthopedic surgeons (orthopedists) perform?

Orthopedic surgeons (orthopedists) perform a broad range of procedures. The one that’s right for you depends on your diagnosis.

Foot and ankle procedures

Hand and upper extremity surgeries

Joint replacement and reconstruction

Orthopedic trauma care

Spine surgeries

Sports injury procedures

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Orthopedic surgeons (orthopedists) treat a broad range of musculoskeletal issues in people of all ages. Some specialize in areas like 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.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/01/2022.

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