What Is an Orthopedic Physician?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 10, 2023
4 min read

Orthopedic physicians (sometimes also called orthopaedic physicians) are doctors who specialize in injuries of the musculoskeletal system — which includes bones, joints, ligaments, nerves, and tendons.

The field of orthopedics was first developed to treat children who had crippling or debilitating diseases. It makes sense, then, that the word “orthopedic” is derived from the Greek words “ortho,” meaning straight, and “pais,” meaning children or pediatric. Today, orthopedic physicians treat patients of all ages. 

Almost everyone experiences joint pain at some point in their life, and many people have musculoskeletal injuries that require medical attention. If specialized diagnostics and treatment are required for your injury, you’ll likely see an orthopedic physician.

Even if you aren’t a physically active person, you can damage your muscle tissue simply through the wear and tear of daily activities. Prolonged computer use, working without taking breaks, performing repetitive movements, and even poor posture can cause musculoskeletal injuries.

Orthopedic physicians diagnose and treat injuries caused by sports or physical activity, overuse, aging, and more. Orthopedic doctors aim to:

Manage Pain

There are a variety of musculoskeletal conditions and injuries that can cause discomfort and/or pain. Orthopedic physicians can help reduce or eliminate pain from such injuries.

Orthopedic doctors specialize in treating pain in the following body parts:

Improve Range of Motion

Pain, stiffness, and swelling of the joints can cause a decrease in your range of motion. When this occurs, it can be difficult to complete daily tasks, including showering, cleaning, bending over, and more. Orthopedic physicians help to get your range of motion back to normal through physical therapy or other treatments. Sometimes, surgery is needed.

Treat and Prevent Injuries

Broken bones, compression fractures, stress fractures, dislocations, muscle injuries, and tendon tears or ruptures are conditions that orthopedic doctors commonly treat. Orthopedic doctors can also make a treatment and prevention plan to help you avoid future injuries.

Orthopedic physicians must go through traditional medical school training, including academic work toward their Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree and a two- to four-year residency.

In addition, every state currently requires medical students to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Three sets of exams are required to gain national licensure.

Orthopedic surgeons may also pursue Board Certification. A valid medical license is required to become Board Certified, but certification is not necessary for licensure. A Board Certified orthopedic surgeon has met the standards and passed the tests that assure their patients that they have been adequately trained in orthopedics.

Orthopedic physicians can diagnose and make treatment plans for countless musculoskeletal conditions, including:

Persistent pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical help from orthopedic doctors. If you have persistent pain lasting more than three months or severe pain that does not subside with home treatment, you should consider making an appointment with an orthopedic doctor.

You may consider seeing an orthopedic physician because:

  • You’re experiencing a noticeable decrease in your range of motion
  • You can’t walk without pain or discomfort
  • You have moderate or advanced arthritis of the knee or hip
  • You have progressive hip or knee pain that worsens upon standing
  • Your daily life is affected by your pain and discomfort
  • You have chronic pain (lasting more than 12 weeks)
  • You have a soft tissue injury that has not improved after several days

Wondering if you should go directly to an orthopedic specialist or see your primary care doctor first? If there is a possibility that you have a traumatic or repetitive motion injury to a bone, joint, tendon, or nerve, you should see an orthopedic physician as soon as possible.

When you arrive at your orthopedic doctor’s office, the medical team will ask questions about the location, severity, and onset of your pain. They will likely also ask about your medical history and physical activity level — all to understand how your pain affects your day-to-day activities. 

Depending on your unique situation, your orthopedic doctor may also have you perform physical tests to assess your range of motion or degree of injury. They may also order additional testing, such as an X-ray, CT scan (also called a CAT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an ultrasound, or an electromyography (EMG).