Orthopedics involves the treatment of musculoskeletal system disorders. Medical doctors who perform operations on the various components of this bodily system are called orthopedic (or orthopaedic) surgeons.

They diagnose and treat conditions of the bones, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, and skin. Patients suffer from a wide range of disorders, injuries, diseases, and infections.

Most orthopedic surgeons work in hospitals or outpatient surgical centers. There are also solo practitioners, orthopedic surgeons in group practices, and others in multi-specialty group practices.

Few professions require such extensive education and training. A career in this field entails earning a medical degree, specializing in orthopedics, and then receiving additional training in the subspecialty of orthopedic surgery.

Orthopedic Surgeon Job Description

The diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders involve a variety of tasks. Orthopedic surgeons are medical experts regarding the numerous deformities and ailments that can afflict certain parts of the human body.

These doctors conduct interviews with patients, examine them, and perform tests (like x-rays, MRIs, arthroscopy, and blood sampling) to make diagnoses. They then determine the sort of treatment that is warranted. Surgical procedures include mending broken bones, reattaching ligaments and tendons, and replacing hips and joints with prosthetic devices. Orthopedic surgeons also perform noninvasive procedures like prescribing drugs and nutritional supplements; recommending therapeutic exercises; and immobilizing fractured bones with the use of braces, splints, and casts.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the doctors treat fractures and dislocations; torn ligaments, sprains, and strains; tendon injuries, pulled muscles, and bursitis; ruptured discs, sciatica, low-back pain, and scoliosis; knock knees, bow legs, bunions, and hammer toes; arthritis and osteoporosis; bone tumors, muscular dystrophy, and cerebral palsy; club foot and unequal leg length; abnormalities of the fingers and toes; and growth abnormalities.

The responsibilities of an orthopedic surgeon include:
  • Study patients’ medical histories, then meet with them to discuss their complaints and symptoms
  • Examine or supervise the examination and diagnostic testing of patients
  • Make diagnoses, and recommend surgery or other treatments
  • Schedule facilities and medical staff for operations
  • Perform surgical and noninvasive procedures, and supervise others
  • Prescribe drugs and supplements
  • Create postoperative-care plans, and recommend lifestyle changes involving diet, exercise, and other matters
  • Supervise the education of residents and medical students
  • If in private practice, perform business functions like finance and management
  • Ensure accurate and complete recordkeeping
  • Conduct research and receive continuing education

Orthopedic Surgeon Prerequisites

Orthopedic surgeons need precise eye-hand coordination and intense attention to detail to perform operations on the body. They must maintain focus and concentration, sometimes standing for hours, during procedures. Analytical abilities are key to accurately interpreting the results of diagnostic tests.

Excellent communication skills are required to counsel and obtain information from patients and their families. A confident, professional manner can calm those experiencing pain or anxiety.

Orthopedic surgeons who work in hospitals are often faced wth grisly scenes involving injured patients. Trauma care calls for special skills, as doctors have to be able to perform their duties under stressful conditions.

How to become an Orthopedic Surgeon

As is the case with anyone planning a career in medicine, high school students are advised to take numerous science and math classes. They should include anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, and algebra.

While earning a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college or university, a prospective orthopedic surgeon enrolls in a pre-med program. It consists of more science and math classes, as well as clinical training. On-the-job experience may be obtained by volunteering at a hospital or clinic during the undergraduate years.

The next hurdle to clear is graduating from an accredited, four-year medical school. Graduates are required to enrol in an additional five years of residency training, working with surgeons in hospitals and other facilities. Competition to enter the residency program in orthopedic surgery is extremely fierce. Only around 4% of all practicing physicians in the United States are orthopedic surgeons, which translates to about 20,400 active orthopedic surgeons and residents.

After completion of the residency program, some orthopedic surgeons may choose to further their training through a fellowship program that can last between one to two years. Typically, a research component is involved. These surgeons will specialize in one particular orthopedic subspecialties which includes:

  • Hand surgery
  • Foot surgery
  • Shoulder and elbow surgery
  • Arthroplasty
  • Pediatric orthopedics
  • Spine surgery
  • Musculoskeletal oncology
  • Orthopedic trauma

Orthopedic Surgeon Certification

To practice orthopedic surgery, a state-issued license must be obtained. Proof of the necessary education and training, and passing an exam, are the usual requirements. For information about how to apply, visit the website of a state’s medical-licensing board.

Many employers require professional certification. The American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery awards certificates to those who possess the appropriate degrees, have completed residencies, and have practiced in the field for two years. Written and oral exams must be passed to earn a certificate.

Orthopedic Surgeon Job Description Summary

Here is a short recap of the orthopedic surgeon job description:
  • Diagnose and treat musculoskeletal disorders
  • Work with other physicians and specialists
  • 4 year bachelor’s degree
  • 4 year medical school program
  • 5 additional years of residency program
  • Must be licensed to practice
  • 18% employment growth by 2022