Orthopaedics is the medical specialty that focuses on injuries and diseases of your body's musculoskeletal system. This complex system, which includes your bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves, allows you to move, work, and be active.
Once devoted to the care of children with spine and limb deformities, orthopaedists now care for patients of all ages, from newborns with clubfeet to young athletes requiring arthroscopic surgery to older people with arthritis. And anybody can break a bone.
Your Orthopaedic Surgeon
Orthopaedic surgeons treat problems of the musculoskeletal system. This involves:
- Diagnosis of your injury or disorder
- Treatment with medication, exercise, casting, surgery or other options
- Rehabilitation by recommending exercises or physical therapy to restore movement, strength and function
- Prevention with information and treatment plans to prevent injury or slow the progression of disease
While orthopaedic surgeons are familiar with all aspects of the musculoskeletal system, many orthopaedists specialize in certain areas, such as the foot and ankle, spine, shoulder, hand, hip, or knee. They may also choose to focus on specific fields like pediatrics, trauma or sports medicine. Some orthopaedic surgeons may specialize in several areas.
Education and Training
Your orthopaedic surgeon is a medical doctor with extensive training in the proper diagnosis and treatment of injuries and diseases of the musculoskeletal system. They have completed up to 14 years of formal education, including:
- Four years of study in a college or university
- Four years of study in medical school
- Five years of training in an orthopaedic residency at a major medical center
- One or two optional years of fellowship in a specialized area
After establishing a licensed practice, your orthopaedic surgeon has demonstrated mastery of orthopaedic knowledge by passing certifying examinations given by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery (ABOS), American Osteopathic Board of Orthopaedic Surgery (AOBOS), or Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. They will continue in a career-long Maintenance of Certification process, spending many hours studying, attending continuing medical education courses, and taking self-assessment exams to stay up-to-date.
Certain orthopaedic surgeons meet the qualifications to use the FAAOS letters after their name or to include the logo on their website. This stands for "Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons." This is a professional designation that sets them apart from other providers on the bone and joint healthcare team. The FAAOS designation not only distinguishes your orthopaedic surgeon from other healthcare specialists, but also signifies their commitment to continuous education, professional development, and the highest quality of care you expect to receive.
Learn more: What is FAAOS?
Your Doctor's Visit
Your orthopaedic surgeon will take a history of your illness or injury and then do a physical examination. This may be followed by diagnostic studies such as X-rays or blood tests.
They will then discuss your diagnosis and help you select the best treatment plan so that you can live an active and functional life.
Orthopaedic surgeons treat many musculoskeletal conditions without surgery — by using medication, exercise, and other rehabilitative or alternative therapies.
For most orthopaedic diseases and injuries there is more than one form of treatment. If necessary, your orthopaedic surgeon may recommend surgery if you do not respond to nonsurgical treatments.
Orthopaedic surgeons perform numerous types of surgeries. Common procedures include:
- Arthroscopy — a procedure that uses special cameras and equipment to visualize, diagnose, and treat problems inside a joint.
- Fusion — a welding process by which bones are fused together with bone grafts and internal devices (such as metal rods) to heal into a single solid bone.
- Internal fixation — a method to hold the broken pieces of bone in proper position with metal plates, pins, or screws while the bone is healing.
- Joint replacement (partial, total, and revision) — when an arthritic or damaged joint is removed and replaced with an artificial joint called a prosthesis.
- Osteotomy — the correction of bone deformity by cutting and repositioning the bone.
- Soft tissue repair — the mending of soft tissue, such as torn tendons or ligaments.
AAOS does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products, or physicians referenced herein. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, or locate one in your area through the AAOS Find an Orthopaedist program on this website.