Orthopedic surgery is often considered one of the most challenging and competitive fields in medicine. With its lengthy education and intensive residency training, orthopedic surgeons face a daunting journey to achieve their goals. However, despite the perceived difficulty, many passionate medical graduates take on the risk, hoping that they’ll make a significant impact on the lives of patients suffering from musculoskeletal conditions. 

In this blog, we’ll delve into the common perceptions of orthopedic surgery as a challenging field and uncover the benefits that make this career path worthwhile. So, join us and unravel the complexities of this multifaceted and rewarding specialty.

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What Is an Orthopedic Surgeon

An orthopedic surgeon is a specialized surgeon who performs surgical interventions for musculoskeletal conditions. They possess expertise in the diseases and injuries that afflict the musculoskeletal system, which includes the bones, muscles, nerves, tendons, cartilage, and ligaments. They also treat congenital injuries, conditions, or degenerative diseases like scoliosis, broken hips, and osteoporosis. Because they treat numerous diseases and conditions, orthopedic surgeons get to work with patients of all ages.

What do orthopedic surgeons do?

Orthopedic surgeons perform surgeries or treatments to improve a patient’s physical condition, relieve pain, or suppress bone degeneration. You can typically find orthopedic surgeons in a clinic setting, seeing patients, performing surgery in the operating room, or seeing hospitalized patients. Although they spend the majority of their time in surgery, they also:

  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests like X-rays, CT/CAT scans, and MRIs;
  • Conduct a detailed examination to diagnose osteopathic problems;
  • Complete patient charts accurately and maintain records;
  • Be on call to respond to emergencies like car accidents or trauma. 

Orthopedic surgeons commonly treat conditions such as:

  • Dislocated joints;
  • Broken bones;
  • Degenerative joint changes;
  • Arthritis;
  • Hip and back pain.

Some of the tests and procedures they may perform to treat these conditions include:

  • Ankle reconstruction and replacement;
  • Bone grafting;
  • Bunion surgery;
  • Carpal tunnel surgery;
  • Disk replacement;
  • Femoral osteotomy;
  • Knee replacement;
  • Meniscus repair. 

Challenges of Becoming an Orthopedic Surgeon

As with all professions, becoming an orthopedic surgeon comes with its own challenges and potential drawbacks. 

Education length

Becoming an orthopedic surgeon can be challenging due to the rigorous academic path, extensive training, and demanding workload. In general, it can take 13 to 15 years after high school to become an orthopedic surgeon. Let’s break down the academic and training timeline. 

  • Undergraduate studies (four years);
  • Medical school (four years);
  • Residency training (five years);
  • Fellowship (optional, one to two years). 

However, keep in mind that this timeline can change whether you take a gap year or not. 

Competitive nature

Due to the high earning potential, dynamic nature, and advanced surgical techniques, orthopedic surgery is one of the most competitive specialties. What also influences its competitiveness is the limited available number of residency positions available each year. According to data provided by the NRMP, in 2023, orthopedic surgery had 899 positions and 1,425 applicants, which equates to 1.58 applicants per person. Of the 947 MD senior applicants, 690 were matched into an orthopedic surgery program. 

Intense residency

Another potential drawback to becoming an orthopedic surgeon is the residency training. Orthopedic residency is among the most grueling and demanding surgical training programs, requiring long hours, including night shifts and weekends. Orthopedic surgery typically has high patient volumes, with residents having to manage a large number of cases across subspecialties. Furthermore, the residency training involves acquiring an extensive number of technical skills in a relatively short five-year period. 

Overall, orthopedic residency training can be physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding, requiring dedication and resilience to succeed.  

Emotional stress

Orthopedic surgeons often have to deal with complex cases or patients in constant pain due to arthritis. Witnessing patients’ pain and suffering, especially in cases of severe trauma, can be emotionally challenging. Moreover, despite doing everything in their power, some patients may face complications or adverse outcomes, potentially resulting in feelings of frustration and helplessness. Orthopedic surgeons can also face high-stakes situations in cases such as traumatic injuries or surgeries with potential long-term implications, which can be emotionally taxing. 

Continuing education

As the specialty of orthopedic surgery is ever-evolving with continuous innovations in surgical tools and prosthetics, orthopedic surgeons must stay abreast of these advancements to ensure high-quality care. Moreover, continuing education allows orthopedic surgeons to enhance patient safety and minimize serious complications. 

After becoming certified by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery (ABOS) or the American Osteopathic Board of Orthopedic Surgery (AOBOS), orthopedic surgeons must participate in continuing education to maintain certification. They also have to renew their certification through board evaluation and exams every seven to ten years. While these requirements ensure orthopedic surgeons stay current with the latest developments in the field, continuing education activities can add to the already busy workload. 


Medical education and training to become an orthopedic surgeon bring about a substantial financial burden. Although medical school tuition costs vary widely depending on the institution, they’re generally quite expensive. The average yearly cost of medical school is $58,968, with the total cost reaching $235,827. 

Because many students finance their education through loans, they may face significant debt upon graduation. According to a report by the Education Data Initiative, the average medical school debt is $202,453, excluding premedical undergraduate and other educational debt.

In addition to tuition, medical students must also cover living expenses such as food, housing, transportation, and study materials, which can be costly. Moreover, while residents receive a salary, it’s typically a modest salary compared to the hours and responsibilities they take.  

Benefits of Becoming an Orthopedic Surgeon

Let’s explore the promising benefits of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. 

Benefits of Becoming an Orthopedic Surgeon

High earning potential

A significant benefit of becoming an orthopedic surgeon is the high earning potential. According to BLS data, orthopedic surgeons are among the highest-paid medical professionals in the healthcare industry, with a salary of $378,250. However, their salary depends on the industry or employer, years of experience, and location. 

The top-paying industries for orthopedic surgeons include:

  • Outpatient Care Centers: $429,450;
  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals: $412,380;
  • Offices of Physicians: $380,460;
  • Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools: $180,840.

Following the top-paying states for orthopedic surgeons include:

  • Florida;
  • Mississippi;
  • Nebraska;
  • New Mexico;
  • North Dakota. 

Job stability

The BLS projects a two percent growth in employment for orthopedic surgeons, with about 800 openings estimated annually from 2022 to 2032. While the job outlook may be lower than other specialties, the job outlook rate for orthopedic surgeons is likely to get stronger due to:

  • An aging population needing orthopedic surgeries like hip and joint replacements;
  • An increase in the number of orthopedic surgeons retiring;
  • Gender and age gaps in orthopedics closing, which can lead to new opportunities for women and surgeons of color. 

Opportunities for specialization

Another thing that makes orthopedic surgery a worthwhile pursuit is that it offers opportunities for further specialization and career growth. After completing an orthopedic surgery residency program, orthopedic surgeons can pursue further training and become experts in a subspecialty in this branch of medicine. Some of the orthopedic surgery sub-specializations include:

  • Hand surgery;
  • Podiatry;
  • Pediatric orthopedics;
  • Spinal surgery;
  • Trauma surgery;
  • Joint replacement;
  • Sports medicine.

Moreover, orthopedic surgery offers opportunities for career growth, such as:

  • Chief of Surgery: After gaining substantial experience in orthopedic surgery, orthopedic surgeons can advance to a leadership role as a chief of surgery. This position involves managing a medical center’s surgical department, coordinating with staff, and working with other directors and surgeons. Chiefs of surgery also ensure that the surgical department provides consistent, high-quality care.
  • Chief Medical Officer (CMO): After gaining managerial experience and extensive clinical experience, orthopedic surgeons can move toward the role of a CMO. CMOs provide executive-level leadership for hospitals and medical centers. Moreover, they analyze the quality of care throughout the facility and recommend improvements in policies or procedures.  

Bottom Line

Pursuing a career in orthopedic surgery is undoubtedly a challenging yet immensely rewarding pursuit. From the demanding education and training to the emotional stress and commitment to continuous education, orthopedic surgeons may face many challenges in the journey. On the other hand, a career in orthopedic surgery can be fulfilling as it offers a high earning potential, opportunities for specialization, and job stability. 

As you embark on this career path, take time to reflect on your interests, strengths, and motivations. By doing so, you will make an informed decision about your future and be able to face any obstacle along the way. So, embrace the challenges and seize the opportunity to make a mark in orthopedic surgery. 


How long does it take to become an orthopedic surgeon?

Becoming an orthopedic surgeon can take at least 13 to 15 years after high school. 

What is the work-life balance like for orthopedic surgeons?

As orthopedic surgeons have to work long hours and be on-call, it can be challenging to maintain a healthy work-life balance without potentially affecting personal well-being and family life. 

How does the job outlook for orthopedic surgeons compare to other medical professions?

In the 2022-32 period, the employment of orthopedic surgeons is expected to grow by 1%. Unfortunately, it’s significantly less than the 9% growth of healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners. 

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