Physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons both work in health care settings, treating patients with physical conditions that cause discomfort or difficulty moving. However, that's where the similarities end between these professions. Orthopedic surgeons can perform operations, have several years of education above and beyond that required for physical therapists, and make far more money.
Physical therapists are medical professionals who diagnose and treat disorders related to movement. In general, they work with patients who either need rehabilitation from an injury or need to manage a chronic condition, such as cerebral palsy or Parkinson's disease. Physical therapists use a variety of techniques to help patients gain or regain physical mobility, including massage techniques, stretching and exercise regimens, or the use of adaptive equipment in patient homes or workplaces. Physical therapists work primarily in general hospitals or in private offices.
Like physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons spend some of their time diagnosing injuries or conditions of the musculoskeletal system. However, instead of relying primarily on exercise regimens, orthopedic surgeons perform operations to restore function to patients. Many orthopedic surgeons specialize in operating on specific parts of the musculoskeletal system, such as the spine, hips or shoulders. This can also be a very demanding job: many orthopedic surgeons work over 60 hours a week, and may also work irregular hours when they are on-call, according to the College Foundation of North Carolina.
Differences in Educational Requirements
It takes six to seven years of education to become a physical therapist. An aspiring physical therapist must complete a four-year bachelor's degree, followed by two to three years in a program leading to a Master's of Physical Therapy or a Doctor of Physical Therapy. However, orthopedic surgeons study and train for twice as long. An orthopedic surgeon needs a four-year premedical bachelor's degree, four years of medical school, and five years of residency in orthopedic surgery. An additional year of training is needed to specialize, bringing the total educational requirements for orthopedic surgeons to 13 or 14 years.
Differences in Salary
Physical therapists are paid well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists earned an average of $81,110 per year in 2012, and 25 percent of physical therapists made $92,860 or more per year. Still, these salaries pale in comparison to the money made by orthopedic surgeons, who were the highest-paid of all medical specialties in 2012. According to an annual salary survey conducted by Medscape, orthopedic surgeons earned an average of $405,000 per year, and 20 percent of orthopedic surgeons earned $600,000 or more per year.