Orthopedic surgeons are doctors who specialize in the musculoskeletal system – the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles that are so essential to movement and everyday life. With more than 200 bones in the human body, it’s an in-demand specialty. Dislocated joints. Hip or back pain. Arthritis (which afflicts half of seniors age 65 and older). Acute, chronic, or degenerative, all of these common disorders fall under orthopedics. Because of the specialty’s vastness, most orthopedic surgeons sub-specialize, focusing on a specific treatment area. Hand and wrist specialists only see hand and wrist cases. Joint surgeons only treat hip or knee patients with arthritis or another limiting joint condition. This lets them diagnose, treat and even prevent orthopedic problems with next-level precision.
Kinds of Orthopedic Doctors
Let’s start by differentiating between orthopedic surgeons and orthopedic specialists. When referring to orthopedic doctors, the term “orthopedic surgeon” is often used by default. This is understandable considering that orthopedic surgeries are one of the more common medical procedures that people encounter, so many of us know someone who has had some kind of orthopedic surgery. However, while all orthopedic surgeons are orthopedic specialists, not all orthopedic specialists are orthopedic surgeons. Any orthopedic specialist – surgical and otherwise – is qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat your orthopedic ailment using non-invasive treatments. And just because orthopedic surgeons are qualified to operate doesn’t mean they will. Reputable orthopedic specialists backed by robust health care systems are more likely to restore lives using advanced non-surgical techniques, from minimally invasive procedures to computer-assisted treatments to the harvesting and growth of your own cells for cartilage repair.
“Orthopaedic specialists, operative or not, are often the quarterback of a patient’s orthopaedic care plan,” explains Dr. Kate Temme, Director of the Penn Center for the Female Athlete. “They work to evaluate the patient’s unique condition and offer treatment options, helping them determine their best course of action. That might include surgery, but often doesn’t – even if that doctor is an orthopaedic surgeon.”An orthopedic specialist who sub-specializes in treating a specific body part or condition is almost always a patient’s best bet. Sub-specialists have a wealth of experience and knowledge in their area of expertise. Beyond the obvious benefits, this can help them navigate complex and high-risk cases when they arise. Sub-specialization is especially critical when surgery is in the mix.
“Penn Medicine takes sub-specialization one step further, to hyper-specialization. This means we routinely see and treat extreme, unique, and high-risk cases that others aren’t able to handle,” explains Dr. Levin.Additionally, sub-specialists are more likely to be involved in research on ways to optimize existing treatments or even develop something new and better. This leads us to the second thing to look for in an orthopedic specialist: robust resources.