Call her an orthopod, an orthopedist or an orthopedic surgeon -- she’s a bone doctor and the musculoskeletal system is her playground. Or, as the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons would put it in slightly fancier language: “Orthopaedics is a medical specialty that focuses on the diagnosis, care, and treatment of patients with disorders of the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves, and skin.”
If you want to go into orthopedics, you’ll need a generous dose of smarts and perseverance. First comes four years of college, with courses such as biology and other sciences. Then it’s off to medical school -- yep, four more years of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, medical ethics and surgical techniques. Residency comes next, for a minimum of three years but more likely four. And if you’re really a glutton for punishment, you can do a fellowship for extra specialty training. Now you have to pass your board exams, get a medical license, and bingo, you’re an orthopedic surgeon.
Although they’re surgeons, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says most orthopods only spend about half their time in the operating room. The rest of what they do is non-surgical or medical management of injuries such as sprains or fractures. Orthopods may also work with patients who have deformities from diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Depending on the problem, medical management may include a splint to support an injured leg, a referral to a physical therapist to strengthen muscles after an injury or a joint injection to relieve pain.
If surgery is what’s needed, the orthopedic surgeon has a wide array of silver bullets in her six-shooter. Many orthopedic surgeries can be performed with an arthroscope, a special device that lets her see and work inside the body but only requires two or three small incisions. If a joint has become completely worn out, the orthopod can remove it and put in a new artificial joint, which allows the patient to get back to his normal activities and often offers considerable pain relief. Orthopedic surgeons may also perform procedures such as tendon reattachments or transfers, repair torn ligaments or correct problems such as unequal leg lengths.
Specialization, Skills and Salaries
Some orthopedic surgeons specialize in a particular area of the body, such as the hands or spine. Other may specialize by age and only treat children -- they are called pediatric orthopedists or pediatric orthopedic surgeons. Sometimes considered the engineers of the surgical profession, orthopedists need mechanical aptitude, good manual dexterity and good three-dimensional visualization skills. It’s not a job for a couch potato – the National Institutes of Health says you can expect to work a 60 to 80 hour week. On the other hand, the average annual salary for orthopedic surgeons was $501,808 in 2011, according to the American Medical Group Management Association.
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