What Is a Pediatric Orthopaedic Surgeon?
A pediatric orthopaedist is the best-trained and most experienced doctor to properly evaluate and treat musculoskeletal (bone, joint, or muscle) problems in a child who is still growing. This includes newborn babies through teenagers.
Pediatric orthopaedic surgeons often work in specialty pediatric hospitals to ensure that children with multiple medical problems receive the multidisciplinary care from different pediatric specialists that they need to thrive.
What kind of training do pediatric orthopaedic surgeons have?
Pediatric orthopaedic surgeons choose to make the care of children the focus of their medical practice. They learn the unique nature of medical and surgical care of children from both advanced training and real-world experience in practice.
Pediatric orthopaedic surgeons are doctors who have completed the following education and training:
- Graduated from an approved medical school (typically 4 years)
- Graduated from an approved orthopaedic surgery residency program (typically 5 years)
- Completed additional subspecialty training in pediatric orthopaedics and/or pediatric spinal deformity (typically 1 year)
What types of problems do pediatric orthopaedic surgeons treat?
A child's musculoskeletal problems are different than those of an adult.
Because children are still growing, the body's response to an injury, infection, or deformity may be quite different than that of a fully-grown person.
Sometimes, what is thought to be a problem in a child is just a variation of growth that will go away on its own with time. A good example of this is intoeing in a toddler. There are many problems that are unique to the growing body and are not found in adults.
Pediatric orthopaedic surgeons diagnose, treat, and manage the full range of musculoskeletal problems in children, including:
- Limb and spine deformities noted at birth or later in life (clubfoot, scoliosis, limb length differences in the legs or arms)
- Gait abnormalities (limping)
- Broken bones
- Torn ligaments (anterior cruciate ligament injuries, rotator cuff tears, etc.)
- Tendinitis and bursitis
- Bone, joint, and muscle infections
Pediatric orthopaedic surgeons may work with doctors from other specialties as part of a medical-surgical team to treat complicated conditions such as:
Pediatric orthopaedic surgeons: providing specialized care for children
Children are not just small adults — physically, mentally, or emotionally. They cannot always express what is bothering them, or answer medical questions, or be patient and cooperative during a medical examination. They may also feel frightened or anxious just from being in a doctor's office or hospital.
Creating a comfortable and nonthreatening environment for children starts with the clinical space, and most orthopaedic surgeons' offices are arranged and decorated with children in mind. This may include:
- Specially-designed equipment
- Available toys, videos, and reading materials
- Child-friendly decor
In addition, pediatric orthopaedic surgeons are trained to examine and treat children in a way that helps them to be relaxed and cooperative. They also appreciate the worry and stress families can experience when a child has a musculoskeletal problem, and they have experience in communicating with anxious family members.
What to expect during a pediatric orthopaedic appointment
Each visit is tailored to the child's age and development.
Parents or guardians can expect to assist their child in answering questions or even providing all of the information. In addition to typical questions about the duration and type of symptoms, a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon will typically review information about a patient’s birth, development, and family history.
The examination is customized to the child's specific complaint and, just as important, their age. A toddler cannot be expected to answer questions or follow instructions the same way a teenager would.
At times, a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon must find creative ways to examine young patients, such as observing them play, run, or handle objects.
To help children both feel safe and comply with the doctor's instructions, parents or guardians often participate in the examination — for instance, holding nervous young patients in their lap, or encouraging them to participate in various maneuvers.
Depending on the issue, the child's visit may include:
- X-rays, a CT scan, an MRI scan, or an ultrasound
- Casting or splinting
- A blood draw for laboratory testing
Parents or guardians typically can stay with the child for most, if not all, aspects of a clinic visit.
A pediatric orthopaedic surgeon often has extensive experience in casting and bracing. Many fractures in children can be treated without surgery. Other conditions, such as hip dysplasia or clubfoot, may also be treated with casting and bracing rather than surgery.
When surgery is necessary, a pediatric surgeon has specialized training with implants and techniques unique to the growing body, such as guided growth for limb length differences or deformity.
Treatment planning for pediatric patients takes into account the family's situation in addition to the child's medical needs. Support services may be available to help families navigate the child's care.
Where can I find a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon?
Pediatric orthopaedists have extensive and comprehensive training, and as well as expertise in dealing with children and treating their musculoskeletal problems. Your pediatrician or primary care doctor may have suggestions about whom to see.
If you feel that a pediatric orthopaedist is the right doctor for your child, the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society of North America (POSNA) contains a directory of members in every geographic location:
All members of POSNA have completed a 1-year fellowship in pediatric orthopaedic surgery or devote at least 75% of their practice to treating children with pediatric orthopaedic problems.
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.