Orthopedics is a medical specialty that focuses on the diagnosis, correction, prevention, and treatment of patients with skeletal deformities – disorders of the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves and skin. These elements make up the musculoskeletal system.
Your body’s musculoskeletal system is a complex system of bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles and nerves and allows you to move, work and be active. Once devoted to the care of children with spine and limb deformities, orthopedics now cares for patients of all ages, from newborns with clubfeet, to young athletes requiring arthroscopic surgery, to older people with arthritis.
The physicians who specialize in this area are called orthopedic surgeons or orthopedists.
Role of the orthopedist
Orthopedists use medical, physical and rehabilitative methods as well as surgery and are involved in all aspects of heath care pertaining to the musculoskeletal system. It is a specialty of incredible breadth and variety. Orthopedists treat a immense variety of diseases and conditions, including fractures and dislocations, torn ligaments, sprains and strains tendon injuries, pulled muscles and bursitis ruptured disks, sciatica, low back pain, and scoliosis knock knees, bow legs, bunions and hammer toes, arthritis and osteoporosis, bone tumors, muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy, club foot and unequal leg length abnormalities of the fingers and toes, and growth abnormalities.
In general, orthopedists are skilled in the:
- Diagnosis of your injury or disorder
- Treatment with medication, exercise, surgery or other treatment plans
- Rehabilitation by recommending exercises or physical therapy to restore movement, strength and function
- Prevention with information and treatment plans to prevent injury or slow the progression of diseases
Typically, as much as 50 percent of the orthopedist’s practice is devoted to non-surgical or medical management of injuries or disease and 50 percent to surgical management. Surgery may be needed to restore function lost as a result of injury or disease of bones, joint, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves or skin.
The orthopedist also works closely with other health care professionals and often serves as a consultant to other physicians. Orthopedists are members of the teams that manage complex, multi-system trauma, and often play an important role in the organization and delivery of emergency care.
A field known for innovation
Like other branches of medicine, remarkable technological advances have significantly shaped the field of orthopedics in recent years.
- Arthroscopy – the application of visualizing instruments to assist in the diagnosis and surgical treatment of internal joint diseases – has opened new horizons of therapy
- Exciting cellular research may enable orthopedic surgeons to stimulate the growth of ligaments and bone in patients someday in the future
- Great advances have occurred in the surgical management of degenerative joint disease. For example, orthopedic surgeons can replace a diseased joint with a prosthetic device (total joint replacement)
- Research is progressing on “growing” articular cartilage in joints, which may one day reduce the need for some people to get joint replacements
While most orthopedists practice general orthopedics, some may specialize in treating the foot, hand, shoulder, spine, hip, knee, and others in pediatrics, trauma or sports medicine. Some orthopedists may specialize in several areas.
Orthopedic patients have benefited from technological advances such as joint replacement, and the arthroscope that allows the orthopedist to look inside a joint. But your visit will start with a personal interview and physical examination. This may be followed by diagnostic tests such as blood tests, X-rays, or other tests.
Your treatment may involve medical counseling, medications, casts, splints, and therapies such as exercise, or surgery. For most orthopedic diseases and injuries, there is more than one form of treatment. Your orthopedist will discuss the treatment options with you and help you select the best treatment plan to enable you to live an active and functional life.
Your orthopedic surgeon is a medical doctor with extensive training in the proper diagnosis and treatment of injuries and diseases of the musculoskeletal system.
- Injuries to the musculoskeletal system (bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons) or conditions like arthritis, osteoporosis rank number one in visits to physicians’ offices.
- One in seven Americans has a musculoskeletal impairment.
- The number of persons incurring musculoskeletal injuries is 28.6 million annually — accounting for more than one-half of all injuries in one year.
- Musculoskeletal conditions and injuries account for 137.6 million visits to physicians’ offices and hospital outpatient and emergency departments every year.
- Approximately 7.5 million musculoskeletal procedures are performed by physicians every year.
- Arthritis is the leading chronic condition reported by the elderly.
- Back or spine injuries are the most prevalent musculoskeletal impairments.
- Sprains or dislocations and fractures account for almost one-half of all musculoskeletal injuries.
- More than 15.3 million visits were made to physicians’ offices due to back problems in 1999.
- More than 10.1 million visits were made to physicians’ offices due to knee problems in 1999. The knee is the most often treated anatomical site by orthopedic surgeons.
- More than 5.9 million visits were made to physicians’ offices due to shoulder problems in 1999.
- More than 5.3 million visits were made to physicians’ offices due to foot and ankle problems in 1999.
- More than 2.4 million visits were made to physicians in office-based practices in 1999 because of carpal tunnel syndrome. Of these visits, more than one million were made to orthopedic surgeons.
- Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates in 1997, 29,200 episodes of carpal tunnel syndrome were reported in private industry that resulted in an average of 25 days of work loss.
- Each year, musculoskeletal injuries in the U.S. cause children to stay home from school 21 million days.
- Currently employed workers in the U.S. lose more than 147 million days of work because of musculoskeletal injuries.