What Is an Orthopedist?

By Fraser Sherman; Updated July 05, 2017
Orthopedist at work
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Orthopedists are doctors who research and treat problems with bones, joints and muscles, technically known as the musculoskeletal system. That covers a lot, including bone tumors, degenerative diseases and sports injuries. Many orthopedists specialize in a narrower professional field. The job outlook and income prospects for orthopedists, like other doctors, is good.

What Orthopedists Do

The definition of an orthopedist is a specialist who diagnoses and treats musculoskeletal problems. These include:

  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Loss of physical ability, for instance being unable to walk upstairs.
  • Broken bones
  • Arthritis
  • Sprained ankle
  • Tennis elbow
  • Shoulder impingement.

Orthopedists may use surgery, but that's typically a last resort. If a doctor can fix a problem via less extreme measures such as physical therapy, drugs or a joint brace, she'll usually try those methods first. If they don't work, then it's time to discuss surgery with the patient.

Orthopedists can be found working in both hospitals and private practice.

Specialization

Some orthopedists look at the overall musculoskeletal system rather than specializing. This "big picture" approach has advantages. A patient may show up complaining of problems in his feet, but in reality, the source of the problem could be the knee, the hips or the lower back.

Other orthopedists specialize and gain greater expertise in particular subfields, such as:

  • Arthritis treatment
  • Rheumatology
  • Pain management
  • Sports medicine
  • Hand surgery
  • Foot surgery
  • Back injuries
  • Hip replacement

Orthopedic practice often overlaps with other kinds of specialties. An orthopedist and a podiatrist can both treat bone or muscle problems in a patient's feet, for instance.

Becoming an Orthopedist

Like any medical position, orthopedics requires lots of schooling and hard work. First comes four years of undergraduate study, typically with plenty of science courses. After that comes four years of medical school. Then the rookie orthopedist will spend five years in an orthopedic residency, practicing under the direct supervision of a more experienced doctor. Most orthopedists will undergo another year of specialty training on top of that.

Completing all those years of study doesn't make an orthopedist a licensed doctor. For that, she has to complete both the national licensing exam and any extra license requirements in her state. She may choose to become board-certified, which involves more exams, peer review and continuing education. Certification isn't a legal requirement to become an orthopedist, but it can boost the doctor's chance of employment.

Professional Prospects

The federal government sees the job market for doctors and surgeons of all kinds growing steadily through at least 2024. The report does not specify job prospects for orthopedists specifically. The prospects are particularly good for doctors specializing in health problems of older Americans, or willing to work in rural areas where medical professionals are few and far between.

The Medscape website's 2017 survey of doctors' incomes found orthopedists, at $489,000 per year, the highest paid specialists. That's a 10 percent increase since 2016. Self-employed orthopedists earned more than average. Orthopedists were less satisfied with their income than most doctors, believing they should earn more.

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