What Does an Orthopedic Surgeon Do?

Most of us will have aching joints, muscle pain, joint degeneration, or suffer an injury at some point in our lives. When you face a musculoskeletal condition, an orthopedic surgeon can help. At GPOA in Pittsburgh, PA, our physicians bring years of experience that can help you on your healing journey.  

There are many fields of medical specialty, and it can be hard at times to know which is the right one for your particular concern. Perhaps you’ve been told by your general physician that you need to be referred to an orthopedic specialist. Whether you’re looking for specific help or just want to learn more, you may be wondering what orthopedic surgeons actually do.

What Is an Orthopedic Surgeon?

An orthopedic surgeon is also sometimes referred to as an orthopedist. This professional is a doctor trained in how to deal with the musculoskeletal system in particular. This system is made up of joints, ligaments, muscles, bones, and tendons.

When we hear the word “surgeon,” naturally we think first of surgery; but orthopedists are also trained to help prevent disorders of the musculoskeletal system as well as treat them by non-surgical means when possible. An orthopedist will also help patients through their entire orthopedic healing and rehabilitation process, even if they don’t actually have surgery.

When Is Surgery Necessary?


Often, surgery deals with life-threatening issues, such as artery blockages or removing cancerous tumors. When it comes to orthopedics, the point of surgery isn’t usually to save a patient from a life-threatening condition but to restore quality of life. It’s about ending pain and promoting mobility.

Becoming an Orthopedic Surgeon

An orthopedist goes through extensive training and practice to become qualified. Knowing a bit about this process can shed light on just what it is an orthopedist does.

Step One: Training

As with all medical professionals, the first step for an orthopedist is an undergraduate degree. With this in hand, the next educational step is medical school. A four-year degree from an accredited medical school earns a professional an M.D. or D.O. degree.

After medical school, an aspiring orthopedist must do another five years of very intensive study in an orthopedic residency program. Once that is over, many go on to complete another one to two-year fellowship, providing them with even further specialization. These specializations might be in joint replacement, hand or shoulder surgery, sports medicine, spine issues, and more.

The final, and often most difficult step is becoming board certified. This involves both a written exam and a peer review to determine if the doctor meets the standards demanded by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery. If they do, they will be awarded a certificate good for ten years. Every ten years, this certification must be renewed to ensure the surgeon is always on top of the latest techniques and information.

Step Two: Specializing

After getting board-certified, an orthopedist can work towards another Certificate of Added Qualifications, which requires a separate exam. Many orthopedists continually add to their qualifications to become especially expert in certain areas, like elbow surgery, trauma, arthroplasty, or cutting-edge technology and procedures.

What Does an Orthopedic Surgeon Do?

A lot of things fall under the purview of an orthopedist, but each is in the general category of improving quality of life by finding ways to eliminate pain and promote healing in the musculoskeletal system. Specifically, orthopedic professionals work on:

  • Repetitive strain injuries, like carpal tunnel
  • Reconstruction of major joints after injury or illness
  • Reconstruction of delicate joints, like those in the hand
  • Bone tumors and osteoporosis
  • Arthritic conditions
  • Back and neck strains and injuries, like ruptured disks
  • Common sports injuries, like injuries to the Achilles tendon

Treatments for these conditions can involve physical therapy, counseling and oversight for lifestyle, and advice on how to perform exercises that reduce stiffness and pain. Treatment may also involve injection treatments, surgery, and many other choices. An orthopedist must be aware of the various treatment options in order to provide the best possible care.  

Specific Duties of an Orthopedist

Prevention

One key job for orthopedist professionals is to educate patients about how to prevent musculoskeletal conditions in the first place.

Common Precursors to Injury and Illness

All kinds of things can put a person at greater risk of developing a musculoskeletal condition. Genetics are at play for some. For others, gaining too much weight or living a sedentary lifestyle is a huge risk factor. For some, including many older patients, the problem is a lack of good muscle tone to support ligaments and joints. Lack of flexibility, a repetitive job, and even wearing high heels can all cause issues.

Stopping Problems Before They Start

An orthopedist isn’t just there to help after a person has been injured. They are ready to help long before. For example, if you work a physical job where strains are likely, your orthopedist may recommend ways for you to strengthen your core, gain flexibility, and safely lift objects that can prevent these injuries.

Another area where problems can be prevented is in athletics. An orthopedist can recommend the right regimen of stretches and exercises to maximize performance while minimizing the risk of injury.

While it may seem intuitive to get up and take a walk once in a while if you have a desk job, many people are unaware of just how effective preventative measures like these can be. By preventing issues before they start, orthopedists help people avoid injuries and live healthier, more comfortable, and more mobile lives. These prevention measures can make the aging process easier and more comfortable, as well.

Diagnosis

No good treatment can take place unless an orthopedist is very sure what a patient’s problem is. Sometimes several issues will have similar initial symptoms, and if you’ve ever been injured and found yourself wondering whether it’s just a sprain or you’ve torn something, an orthopedist is the one who can help.

Diagnosis starts with questions about what a patient is feeling and when problems began to manifest. Then, a physical exam can help an orthopedist see where range of motion is limited. After that, X-rays or other imaging exams could be necessary to fully understand the issue. These are all important steps, since an orthopedist will need to know exactly what’s wrong in order to make the right treatment recommendations.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is often the first intervention in any musculoskeletal condition, and that’s because it doesn’t require surgery and may even be able to prevent surgery in the first place. This type of therapy focuses on increasing range of motion and giving patients better balance, endurance, and flexibility. Therapy also helps with functional mobility and strength.

In many cases, physical therapy can improve a patient’s condition without surgery or other more dangerous or intensive interventions, and that is always the goal. After surgery, physical therapy continues to be helpful as a way to promote recovery and avoid future injuries.

Surgery

In some cases, it’s impossible to improve a condition without surgery, and when that happens, it’s important to have a skilled and experienced orthopedic surgeon performing the procedure. When performed by this kind of qualified medical professional, orthopedic surgeries are safe and can completely transform a patient’s life.

Many surgery types are available, including traditional surgeries and less invasive techniques like keyhole surgery, also known as arthroscopy. This type of surgery only requires very small incisions and offers much faster recovery times. However, it isn’t always the right choice in every situation, and every surgery comes with certain risks. Surgery choices are made by a surgeon and patient together, and the goal is always to restore function and quality of life. Some of the most common surgical procedures are:

Joint Replacement

This is the most common procedure by far. Every year, more than a million hip and knee replacements are done in the United States, allowing patients to enjoy pain-free mobility after months, or even years, of limited mobility and often intense pain. Many people who have a joint replacement find they are able to return to activities they had not enjoyed for years.

Soft Tissue Surgery

Athletic injuries and injuries on the job frequently result in damage to the soft tissues, such as the ligaments. In this type of surgery, the surgeon’s job is to reattach these soft tissues or to reconnect tears that the body may struggle to heal on its own. In some cases, this surgery is necessary when physical therapy is not enough.

Spinal Fusion

Spinal and bone fusion surgeries repair damage to the bones of the spine. This damage could come from an injury, from wear and tear over a lifetime, or from a degenerative condition such as scoliosis. These surgeries are also often performed after a fracture so the bones will heal in the right way.

Tumor Removal and Corrections

While many people think of an oncologist first when discussing cancer, orthopedic oncology surgeries are important to get rid of tumors in the musculoskeletal system. At other times, bones can be deformed and require surgery to correct. Both of these surgeries can immensely improve a patient’s life.

Overseeing Recovery

Surgery isn’t the end of orthopedic intervention. It’s also important for an orthopedist to oversee the recovery process, which almost always involves physical therapy. This therapy can sometimes be done by the patient alone, but it often requires a professional therapist. An orthopedic surgeon helps to make the decision about what kind of therapy is needed and how it should be done.

The orthopedist also gauges progress in case an adjustment is needed and helps patients evaluate their health until they reach their goal. Once good health is achieved, an orthopedist becomes a preventative specialist once again, prescribing exercises and interventions that can prevent future injury or stop a problem from reoccurring so patients can enjoy their full range of motion and comfortable quality of life.

Work With the Best

If you need an orthopedist, or your doctor has suggested you see one, know that an orthopedic professional can help you live life to the fullest once again. No one enjoys the prospect of surgery, which is natural, but if a surgery improves your health so that you live without pain for the first time in years or allows you to return to activities you enjoy but have not been able to take part in for far too long, it’s definitely worth it. Even if you are not yet in need of surgical intervention, an orthopedist can help you resolve issues without surgery and prevent them from coming back.

Don’t wait in pain and with limited mobility any longer. Take matters into your own hands and reach out to GPOA in Pittsburgh, PA today. We’re the Pittsburgh area’s oldest continuously operating orthopedic surgery practice, and our combination of state-the-art care, skill, and extensive experience can get you where you deserve to be.

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