The skeleton and its supporting system of muscles, tendons and ligaments provide the human body with its structure. Accidents, diseases and a variety of medical conditions can affect the skeletal system, causing pain or impaired mobility. The specialty of treating of those conditions is called orthopedics. The field may primarily make you think of doctors, but it offers a number of other rewarding careers, as well.
Orthopedic surgeons give the highest level of care for skeletal and joint injuries or conditions. They spend a minimum of five years in a surgical residency after graduating from medical school, learning the profession's skills and techniques. Those who opt for sub-specialties such as pediatric orthopedics, spinal surgery or ankle surgery spend an additional year in a specialized fellowship. Depending on the injury or condition, surgeons might opt for traditional open surgery or newer, minimally invasive techniques using small incisions and miniature instruments. They can also treat patients through non-surgical means, including injections of corticosteroids or the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
Physicians specializing in sports medicine also treat a large number of joint and bone problems. They train initially in internal medicine or family medicine, then spend an additional year in a specialized sports medicine fellowship. Sports doctors treat a variety of strains and sprains of the musculature and joints, as well as setting or splinting broken bones and treating repetitive stress injuries caused by sports or workout activities. Much of their work revolves around the skilled application of appropriate splints or casts, and the use of anti-inflammatories to reduce swelling and minimize pain.
Although some orthopedic injuries and conditions can be recognized easily, many diagnoses require the use of diagnostic imaging. Radiologic technologists are trained to create detailed images of the body's bones and internal tissues, providing physicians with the information they need for diagnosis and treatment. Traditional X-rays and CT scans can detect damage and abnormalities of the skeleton, while other technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasound imaging can detect subtler injuries to ligaments, tendons, muscles and other soft tissues.
Diagnosing and treating an orthopedic injury is only a starting point. Some conditions can't be cured, and occupational or physical therapy is necessary to help patients maintain their best possible quality of life. Therapists also work with patients recovering from successful medical or surgical treatments, who must work their limbs intelligently to restore their full strength and range of motion. Physical therapists use a variety of specialized exercises and equipment for this purpose, while occupational therapists create structured therapy plans using everyday activities. Most therapists are certified and hold a graduate degree.
Orthotics and Prosthetics
Many skeletal injuries or conditions result in a permanent impairment, disfigurement or loss of a limb. A variety of devices can be used to maintain mobility and quality of life despite these challenges, ranging from supportive braces to prosthetic replacement limbs and specialized orthotic footwear. Some are mass-manufactured and others hand-crafted, but even the most generic prostheses must usually be tailored to the individual patient by a skilled technician. These technical staff members must havea strong knowledge of human anatomy. They also must be mechanically adept to work with all kinds of machinery, tools and materials.
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