What Is an Orthopedic Surgeon?

In-Demand Specialty With Only 29,000 Practitioners in the US

Learn how to become an orthopedic surgeon.
Javier Larrea / Getty Images

An orthopedic surgeon is a highly specialized physician devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal injuries and disorders. The profession requires around 14 years of formal education to obtain board certification, with the vast majority of practitioners operating private practices, according to research from the University of Pennsylvania.

Orthopedic surgery is considered one of the more cutting-edge, in-demand fields in the medical profession. It involves both surgical and non-surgical techniques to treat trauma, infections, tumors, congenital defects, and degenerative diseases affecting the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and nerves that coordinate movement.

Beyond general orthopedic surgery, there are also practitioners who specialize in specific parts of the body, such as the spine or the foot and ankle. Others choose subspecialties like pediatrics, sports medicine, or reconstructive surgery.

The title orthopedic surgeon is often used interchangeably with orthopedist.

Concentrations

Orthopedic surgeons treat people of all ages, from newborns to the elderly. The conditions they treat can be broadly defined by their location and/or whether they are related to a trauma, a systemic disease, or a neoplasm (a benign or cancerous growth).

Among some of the more common conditions an orthopedic surgeon may treat:

Because orthopedic surgeons frequently treat spinal disorders, their role often overlaps with neurosurgeons who treat spinal cord disorders.

Procedural Expertise

Since people only tend to see an orthopedic surgeon when a condition has become problematic, most of the focus of the practice is placed on the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders rather than on prevention.

With that said, a concerted effort is made to prevent reinjury following an orthopedic treatment or to avoid the worsening of a chronic condition, particularly those involving the neck, spine, hip, or knee.

Diagnosis

The diagnostic tools used in orthopedics include physical exams, lab tests, and imaging studies. Some of the more common include:

  • Arthroscopy (a surgical procedure using a tiny camera to see inside a joint)
  • Blood tests (used to help identify inflammation and infection or pinpoint conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, bone cancer, or ankylosing spondylitis)
  • Bone scans (an imaging study that use radioactive agents to measure how much bone tissue is lost and replaced in the body)
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans (which combine X-ray with computer technology to produce cross-sectional images of the body)
  • Gait analysis (a physical exam that identifies abnormalities in your lower extremities, limb alignment, or joint rotation)
  • Magnetic resonance Imaging (MRI) scans (which uses powerful magnets and radio waves to create highly detailed images, particularly of soft tissues)
  • Reflex response (to assess how quickly your joints and brain respond to stimulus)
  • X-ray (which uses electromagnetic radiation to create plain-film images)

Treatment

The surgical and non-surgical tools used in orthopedics are extensive and may include:

Subspecialties

Because the conditions treated in orthopedics are so vast and diverse, orthopedic surgeons will often specialize in treating certain conditions, body parts, and populations. Among some of the more common subspecialties:

  • Foot and ankle surgery
  • Hand and upper extremity
  • Orthopedic oncology (involving bone cancers)
  • Orthopedic trauma
  • Pediatric orthopedics
  • Shoulder and elbow
  • Spine surgery
  • Surgical sports medicine
  • Total joint reconstruction (arthroplasty)

Many of orthopedic subspecialties are not exclusive to orthopedists. Some, like hand surgery, are relevant to plastic surgeons, while podiatrists will often pursue fellowship training in foot and ankle surgery.

Training and Certification

In order to become an orthopedic surgeon, you would first need to complete a four-year bachelor's degree program that typically includes one year of biology, two years of chemistry, and one year of physics.

This would be followed by four years in medical school. The first two years would be classroom-based, while the final two are predominantly hospital-based. During this time, you would need to take and pass the National Board exams: one after the second year of medical school and another during the fourth year, (The last exam is generally taken during the first or second year of post-graduate training.)

Based on your educational track, you would then graduate as either a doctor of medicine (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO).

You would next need to apply for and begin a residency program. The program would consist of four years of focused study on the fundamentals of orthopedic surgery. During this time, you would rotate through the major subspecialties in different hospitals to get practical exposure to the various surgical techniques and technologies.

Upon completion of your residency, you can choose to apply for a one- to two-year fellowship to pursue an orthopedic subspecialty.

Board certification would follow the completion of your orthopedic training. For this, you would need to undergo a peer-review process and pass both oral and written exams administered by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery (ABOS) or the American Osteopathic Board of Orthopedic Surgery (AOBOS).

Once certification is granted, orthopedic surgeons must undergo a rigorous recertification every 10 years. So, in addition to running a practice, you would need to devote time to studying and attending continuing medical education courses to ensure that your knowledge is updated and in line with current practices.

Appointment Tips

Meeting with an orthopedic surgeon for the first time can be stressful since most people only do so if there has been a trauma or if a condition is worsening or fails to improve. To get the most out of an appointment, do a little research and always arrived prepared.

Start by finding a specialist who is an in-network provider with your insurance company. You can ask your primary care doctor for referrals or contact your insurance company for a list of providers in your area. You can then check an M.D.'s credentials by using the Certification Matters website managed by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). You can find certified osteopathic orthopedic surgeons near you with the AOBOS search tool.

On the day of your appointment, bring your insurance ID card and any lab or imaging reports relevant to your condition. You should also ask your primary care doctor to forward any pertinent electronic medical records (EMRs).

When discussing symptoms, be succinct yet accurate, neither minimizing nor exaggerating the nature of your condition. If possible, keep a journal of your symptoms if they are recurrent or differ from one episode to the next.

To better understand your condition and what to expect moving forward, write down any question you have on a piece of paper. For example, you might ask:

  • Why is this procedure being recommended?
  • What are the aims of treatment?
  • What is the success rate for this procedure?
  • How is the procedure performed?
  • Does it require any anesthesia?
  • How often have you performed the surgery?
  • How long will the benefits last?
  • What are the potential risks and complications?
  • What can I do to decrease my risk?
  • How long will it take for me to recovery?
  • When can I return to work?
  • When will I know if the treatment is successful?
  • Will I need additional treatments in the future?
  • What will happen if I don't have surgery now?
  • If I want a second opinion, who can I contact?

A Word From Verywell

Orthopedic surgery can be an exciting career with both personal and financial rewards, but it can also be extremely stressful. Especially when starting, you may be faced with emergency calls at all hours. And, while it can be gratifying to improve the quality of life of many of your patients, others may fail to find relief even with your best efforts.

An orthopedic surgeon must possess certain characteristics and skills to successfully embark on a career, including stamina, emotional resilience, strong interpersonal skills, excellent eye-hand coordination, and exceptional manual dexterity. Beyond that, you should be realistic but with a clear sense of determination.

According to the annual Merritt Hawkins' Review of Physician Recruiting Incentives, orthopedic surgeons were the second highest paid physicians in 2018 with an average starting salary of $533,000.

This high earning potential is due, in part, to the dearth of professionals in the field, with little more than 29,000 MD's certified as orthopedic surgeons and far fewer osteopathic orthopedic surgeons in all of the United States.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Orthopaedics - Orthopaedic Surgeons - OrthoInfo - AAOS. Published 2019. Accessed October 16, 2019.

  2. United States Medical Licensing Examination | Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Published 2019.

  3. Certification | ABOS. ABOS. Published 2019.

Additional Reading