While the term “surgeon” is familiar to many, the diversity within this medical specialty reveals a myriad of professionals, each with a distinct focus and set of responsibilities. Among these specialists are orthopedic surgeons, integral contributors to the healthcare system whose role extends far beyond a general understanding of surgical practice. 

Understanding the intricacies of what orthopedic surgeons do is crucial to appreciating their significance in musculoskeletal health, as well as understanding whether it is a career you’d like to pursue. So, read on as this exploration goes beyond a mere orthopedic surgeon description, examining the multifaceted aspects of their profession.

What is an Orthopedic Surgeon?

Orthopedic surgeons are specialized medical professionals responsible for treating conditions related to the musculoskeletal system. They employ a comprehensive approach to patient care, using surgical and nonsurgical interventions to restore optimal function and alleviate pain. Depending on the patient’s needs, they may perform surgical procedures or work with them to develop personalized treatment plans incorporating rehabilitation, physical therapy, and other conservative measures. The primary objective of these experts is to improve patients’ quality of life by addressing musculoskeletal issues and promoting the restoration of mobility, function, and overall well-being.

Common conditions and injuries treated by orthopedic surgeons

Orthopedic surgeons treat a variety of conditions and injuries. Although specific cases may involve unique considerations, some common examples include but are not limited to:

  • Fractures and broken bones
  • Arthritis
  • Sports injuries like ligament tears, meniscus tears, rotator cuff injuries, and stress fractures
  • Sprains and strains
  • Spinal disorders, such as herniated discs, spinal stenosis, and degenerative disc disease
  • Conditions affecting the joints,
  • Trauma-related injuries, including complex fractures and dislocations.
  • Injuries to soft tissues, such as muscles, tendons, and ligaments
  • Congenital musculoskeletal conditions present at birth
  • Age-related degenerative conditions, such as degenerative joint disease and disc degeneration

Job Responsibilities

Orthopedic surgeons hold a crucial role in healthcare, entrusted with various responsibilities that adapt to each patient’s unique needs. Some of these responsibilities include: 

  • Conducting thorough examinations and consultations to diagnose musculoskeletal issues
  • Developing comprehensive treatment plans, considering both surgical and nonsurgical interventions
  • Recommending and interpreting diagnostic imaging, such as radiographs, ultrasound, and MRI scans
  • Performing a range of surgical interventions, including joint replacements, arthroscopy, spinal surgeries, and fracture fixation
  • Working closely with radiologists, anesthesiologists, physical therapists, and other medical experts to ensure holistic patient care
  • Conducting follow-up examinations on patients post-surgery to monitor recovery and address any complications
  • Staying updated on the latest developments in orthopedic medicine

Educational Background and Training


To become an orthopedic surgeon, one must start by obtaining a bachelor’s degree in a science-related field such as biology or chemistry. This provides a strong foundation in basic sciences that are essential for medical studies.

After completing undergraduate studies, the next step is to schedule and pass the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), a standardized exam assessing readiness for medical school. After passing the MCAT, students must complete a four-year medical school program combining coursework and clinical rotations. This program prepares future orthopedic surgeons for the diverse challenges of the profession.

After completing medical school, aspiring orthopedic surgeons’ next step is enrolling in a five-year residency program. The program is followed by fellowship opportunities for specialized training. In addition, it is mandatory to secure a medical license via a state-specific application process. Finally, becoming board-certified is an optional but highly esteemed achievement, demonstrating a commitment to excellence and high standards in patient care.

Orthopedic Surgery Specializations

Orthopedic medicine encompasses a range of specialties for practitioners to pursue:

  • Podiatry: focusing on foot and ankle conditions, including replacements, deformities, and arthritis. Expertise involves treating foot and ankle issues.
  • Hand surgery: concentrating on conditions limiting hand use and treating issues like arthritis, cysts, sprains, and fractures.
  • Pediatric orthopedics: specializing in children’s bone injuries, requiring additional training due to ongoing musculoskeletal development
  • Spinal surgery: specializing knowledge in back and neck conditions, treating arthritis, degeneration, scoliosis, and spinal deformities. 
  • Bone health: focusing on maintaining and strengthening bone health, particularly treating osteoporosis and educating patients about bone density issues.
  • Joint replacement: treating worn-out joints through synthetic bones, metal implants, or screws to restore mobility.
  • General orthopedics: addressing a range of musculoskeletal conditions involving sprains, breaks, and chronic pain.
  • Shoulder and elbow surgery: treating conditions in shoulders and elbows, often working with athletes dealing with injuries like arthritis, rotator cuff tears, and ligament tears.
  • Hip and knee surgery: specializing in dislocations, fractures, and arthritis in hips and knees, performing joint replacement surgeries.
  • Sports medicine: specializing in treating athletes for conditions such as tendon tears, fractures, and joint dislocations, often working with professional teams.
  • Trauma surgery: handling orthopedic conditions deemed emergencies, primarily bone fractures.
  • Orthopedic oncology: focusing on the treatment of tumors in bones and soft tissues, addressing benign and cancerous growths through surgery and post-treatment management.
  • Osseointegration: involving surgery for amputations, inserting metal implants for prosthetics, and enhancing mobility and comfort for patients.

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Orthopedic Surgeon

Success as an orthopedic surgeon requires a unique combination of skills and traits, encompassing both technical proficiencies and interpersonal qualities. Some of the key attributes these professionals must possess, include:

  • Skill in performing surgeries to correct various musculoskeletal issues involving bones, joints, or muscles
  • Capability to assess and treat injuries resulting from trauma, ranging from falls to accidents or sports-related incidents
  • Competence in diagnosing and treating sports and exercise-related injuries, including conditions like tendinitis, stress fractures, and ACL tears
  • Proficiency in addressing orthopedic issues in children, recognizing the unique challenges posed by their ongoing growth and development
  • Expertise in diagnosing and treating disorders of the musculoskeletal system, covering bones, joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments through surgical and nonsurgical methods
  • Ability to communicate complex medical concepts clearly to patients and their families, providing emotional support and guidance
  • Understanding of rehabilitation principles to aid patients in recovering from injuries or illnesses involving physical, occupational, and speech therapy
  • Ability to implement physical therapy interventions to help patients regain movement and function post-injury or surgery, alleviating pain
  • Skill in utilizing occupational therapy to assist individuals in recovering skills and independence after injury or illness, adapting to new ways of performing everyday tasks while reducing pain and stiffness
  • Competence in interpreting radiographs, MRIs, and CT scans to make accurate diagnoses and plan appropriate treatments
  • Ability to collaborate with physiatrists to support patients in recovering from surgery and regaining function

Challenges and Rewards of Orthopedic Surgery 

Orthopedic surgery comes with its unique set of challenges, a significant one being the demanding nature of the profession. Orthopedic surgeons often work long hours, especially during surgeries and postoperative care, requiring a high level of dedication and stamina. The complexity of musculoskeletal conditions also presents challenges, as each patient’s case is unique, necessitating thorough diagnosis and tailored treatment plans. In addition, keeping up with advancements in medical technology and surgical techniques could also be an ongoing challenge for some, requiring orthopedic surgeons to engage in continuous learning and professional development.

However, there are also many rewards. One of the most gratifying aspects is witnessing improvements in patients’ lives. From alleviating chronic pain to restoring mobility and functionality, orthopedic surgeons have the privilege of directly impacting the well-being of those they treat. Successful surgeries that improve patients’ quality of life contribute to a sense of professional fulfillment.

The diverse nature of orthopedic cases, from fractures to joint replacements, ensures that the field remains intellectually stimulating. Moreover, orthopedic surgeons’ significant median annual earnings, totaling $239,000 or more, highlight the value placed on their specialized skills and the intricacy of the conditions they address. This combination of the profound impact on patients’ lives and the direct financial rewards makes orthopedic surgery a uniquely fulfilling career path.

A convergence of cutting-edge technologies is reshaping the future of orthopedic surgery. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing preoperative planning, risk assessment, and personalized rehabilitation protocols by analyzing vast patient datasets. Online-based orthopedic visits, facilitated by telemedicine, offer accessible consultations and follow-ups, providing convenience for patients. Augmented reality and robotics enhance surgical precision, with augmented reality overlaying vital information onto the surgeon’s field of view and robots assisting with procedures for heightened accuracy.

Moreover, the advent of 3D printing introduces unparalleled customization, enabling the creation of patient-specific implants and surgical instruments, ultimately optimizing surgical outcomes. 

In addition, this field’s future is further shaped by smart implants, wearable technology, and medical monitoring systems. Innovative implants and wearables, equipped with sensors, monitor patient movement and collect real-time data, aiding in postoperative progress assessment and treatment customization. Medical monitoring systems track vital signs and rehabilitation progress, enabling early complication detection and reducing the need for frequent hospital visits. 

Collectively, these technologies and advancements represent a transformative era in orthopedic surgery, promising personalized, efficient, and precise patient treatments, improved surgical outcomes, and enhanced patient experiences.

The Bottom Line

All in all, grasping the essence of orthopedic surgeons entails transcending a simplistic job description. To truly comprehend their role, one must explore the complexities of their responsibilities, the array of skills they command, their extensive educational path, and the evolving trends that shape their future practice. Understanding orthopedic surgeons goes beyond the surface, requiring an appreciation for the intricate balance of medical expertise, surgical precision, and compassionate patient care that defines this field.

For those inspired to pursue a career as an orthopedic surgeon, our medical school program offers an enriching pathway. With a comprehensive curriculum and supportive environment, aspiring professionals can cultivate the skills and knowledge needed to contribute meaningfully to the field of orthopedics, shaping a rewarding career dedicated to improving musculoskeletal health.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is an orthopedic surgeon?

An orthopedic surgeon is a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment, and surgical management of musculoskeletal conditions, including bones, joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Are all orthopedic doctors surgeons?

While all orthopedic doctors are trained in musculoskeletal medicine, not all exclusively perform surgery. Some may focus on nonsurgical treatments, rehabilitation, or specialized areas like sports medicine.

Where do orthopedic surgeons work?

Orthopedic surgeons work in various settings, including hospitals, private practices, outpatient clinics, and academic institutions. They may also collaborate with other medical professionals, such as physical therapists and radiologists, to provide comprehensive musculoskeletal care.