An Overview of Pediatric Orthopedics

Boy with a cast on his leg sitting on the couch reading with his dog

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Kids are prone to many types of orthopedic problems. Whether it's a broken bone after a fall off their bike, a sore knee from too much sports activity, or a growth abnormality that causes a parent to be concerned, pediatric orthopedic surgeons are experts in the care of bone and joint problems in kids. Not every bone problem requires the care of a pediatric orthopedic specialist. Many problems are well taken care of by general orthopedists, pediatricians, or emergency care providers. However, when the problem is more complex, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon may be called in to help.

Pediatric orthopedic surgeons have received specialty training in the management of bone and joint problems in children. A pediatric orthopedic surgeon has completed a decade or longer of medical training, including four years of medical school, five years of residency training, and at least one year of specialty training in the management of pediatric conditions.

Kids Aren’t Little Adults

Sometimes we think of kids as just small adults. With bones, that is definitely not the case. Children's bones are very different as they are quickly growing, and the bone is rapidly developing. A child's bone is more elastic (it can bend, without breaking all the way through) and it has a capacity to remodel over time.

Another factor is that children often are unable to express their symptoms or fears in a way that can be easily understood. Very young children may not have developed language skills, and older children may have difficulty communicating even if they do know the words they are trying to say. Physicians treating young children need to be skilled in extracting information about a child's condition, even in situations where they may not be able to ask simple medical questions, such as "where does it hurt?"

There are special considerations with a child's bone that need to be taken into consideration when treating kids. Children are growing, often very quickly, and the areas where bone is growing most quickly, called the growth plate, can be susceptible to injury. While healing of a growth plate injury often occurs very quickly because of the rapid growth occurring at that site, your doctor will need to ensure the growth plate was not damaged, or if special treatment of that growth plate is needed. Unrecognized injuries to a growth plate can lead to growth abnormalities such as early closure of the growth plate, or abnormal growth of the bone.

Managing Childhood Orthopedic Conditions

When a child is injured or has been diagnosed with an orthopedic condition, parents and loved ones can help to support the child through the healing process. Ensuring the child has access to appropriate treatments and that they receive emotional support are critical aspects of care for kids. Some of the more common conditions seen in children include:

In addition, there are some orthopedic conditions that occur in specific age groups.

When treating a child with an orthopedic condition, it is important to not only understand the options for treatment of the particular problem but are there long term issues related to the condition? Does the child need to restrict her activities? If so, how so and for how long? Should she avoid sports, running, or jumping? Is the condition likely to lead to long-term problems or require further treatment?

Helping Kids Feel Well

One of the most important things parents and other family and friends can do for kids with an orthopedic ailment is learn how to support their child. Injuries, illnesses, and medical conditions can cause anxiety and depression in kids, and knowing how to support children is an important role for parents to take.

Foremost, do not be afraid to ask for help from your child's orthopedic specialist or their pediatrician. These individuals have vast experience working with kids who have faced similar problems and should be able to help you navigate what is likely new territory for you. In the same light, don't hesitate to tell medical professionals how you think your child can be helped. You know your child better than anyone else—their fears, their anxieties, their comforts—and sharing this with their medical team can help them take better care of your child.

Some simple tips to help with a child facing an orthopedic treatment:

  • Encourage your child to ask questions, and address those questions seriously
  • Reinforce brave behaviors with praise
  • Don't say "it won't hurt" unless it won't hurt
  • Be supportive, comforting, and encouraging—a hug and a smile go a long way

Where to Find Help

Many types of doctors take care of children, not just pediatric specialists. That said, pediatric orthopedic surgeons are the experts with the most experience taking care of childhood orthopedic conditions, and can be helpful resources when you want to know all the options available for treatment.

Not every hospital orthopedic department will have pediatric orthopedic specialists, but many do. Certainly, any children's hospital will have pediatric orthopedic specialists. You can search the database of providers of the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America for providers in your area.

A Word From Verywell

There is little that causes more fear in a parent than an injured or sick child. Fortunately, the vast majority of orthopedic ailments in kids are temporary frustrations. A child's skeleton has a tremendous ability to heal after trauma, to recover from injury, and to tolerate treatments. Parents are best served by taking their children's conditions seriously to ensure they are getting the right treatment and then listening to their child to ensure they have the emotional support to recover from their condition.

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Article Sources

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  1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. What Is a Pediatric Orthopaedic Surgeon? 2018.

  2. Perron AD, Miller MD, Brady WJ. Orthopedic pitfalls in the ED: pediatric growth plate injuries. Am J Emerg Med. 2002;20(1):50-4. doi:10.1053/ajem.2002.30096

  3. Gutierrez K. Bone and joint infections in children. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2005;52(3):779-94, vi. doi:10.1016/j.pcl.2005.02.005

Additional Reading

  • Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America. OrthoKids.