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The Difference Between an Orthopedic Doctor and an Orthopedic Surgeon

Orthopedic medicine involves the care and treatment of the musculoskeletal system. This includes the bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments throughout the entire body. Often, issues with the musculoskeletal system can cause problems with everyday living and can prevent normal activity. The goal of both Orthopedic doctors and Orthopedic surgeons is to improve or completely resolve these issues to return patients to full function, comfort, and activity. They both treat patients using a wide variety of methods.

What is Orthopedic Medicine?

When learning the difference between Orthopedic doctors and Orthopedic surgeons, especially if you are determining which type of provider to see, it’s important to understand what exactly Orthopedic medicine encompasses and what conditions it involves. The focus of Orthopedic medicine is the function of the musculoskeletal system. When these parts of our body are not functioning well, it can interfere with everything from daily activities to work responsibilities to living an active lifestyle or competing in sports.

Orthopedic medicine can treat musculoskeletal problems via many different approaches depending on the patient’s needs and the severity of the problem. These approaches can range from supplements, injections, and physical therapy, all the way to surgery. Because these kinds of concerns often involve more of the body than just the joint or bone in question, Orthopedic medicine specialists are great at working closely with other types of medical professionals, including physical and occupational therapists and pain management experts. It is also important to note that Orthopedic medicine treats acute conditions due to injury or trauma, issues that slowly progress over time, and congenital problems.

Orthopedic medicine addresses a wide swath of issues, including:

  • Broken or fractured bones
  • Arthritis and osteoarthritis
  • Soft tissue injuries or issues, like whiplash, tendonitis, or sprains
  • Back and neck pain
  • Shoulder pain or conditions such as bursitis
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Sports injuries like meniscus or ACL tears
  • Scoliosis and other spine deformities
  • Clubfoot, limb dysplasia, polydactyly, and other congenital conditions

What is an Orthopedic Doctor?

The primary concentrations of an Orthopedic doctor are identifying, diagnosing, and discussing treatment options with patients with musculoskeletal issues. This is often the first step after a patient visits their PCP, who may refer them to a specialist to determine the proper treatment for an ailment. An orthopedic doctor can order a wide variety of testing and imaging to help with a diagnosis, including x-rays and CT Scans.

If the issues you’re experiencing may require surgery, an Orthopedic doctor might begin treatment using non-invasive methods before referring you to a surgeon, or they may refer you right away so that the surgeon oversees your entire treatment plan. These doctors may also refer you to physical therapists or other specialists depending on your care needs. Orthopedic doctors often help patients through the preparation and rehab portions of surgery; however, they do not perform any surgical procedures themselves.

Orthopedic doctors can:

  • Diagnose, order testing for, and identify orthopedic issues
  • Prescribe medication
  • Give injections
  • Provide treatment options such as casts, braces, or splints
  • Externally reset broken bones
  • Refer to additional care

What is an Orthopedic Surgeon?

An Orthopedic surgeon can do all the same things that an Orthopedic doctor can do, except they can also perform surgery. Typically surgery is the focus of their practice, sometimes with a particular sub-specialty. If you are first referred to or choose to see a surgeon, they will also use a variety of diagnostic tools to determine what exactly the issue is and create a plan to treat it either with a non-invasive therapy or surgery if needed.

Some patients assume that Orthopedic surgeons will recommend you go under the knife as a first option in all scenarios. However, this should not be the case with a reputable doctor. Again, the goal of high-quality Orthopedic surgeons is to help you get back to your full capacity, and if that can be done with minimally invasive treatments and therapies, that’s the best place to start. If the need for surgery is determined, your surgeon will be able to discuss different options. It is worth considering a surgeon who is a sub-specialist in the particular surgery needed, especially if the surgery is complex or uncommon.

Orthopedic surgeons can perform surgeries including:

  • Knee Replacement Surgery
  • Hip Replacement Surgery
  • Shoulder Replacement Surgery
  • Other Joint Replacement Surgeries (such as fingers and toes)
  • Spinal Surgery
  • Knee Arthroscopy
  • Shoulder Arthroscopy
  • Soft Tissue Repair Surgery
  • ACL Reconstruction Surgery
  • Osteotomy
  • Internal Fixation Surgery (inserting screws, pins, or plates to repair bone)
  • Bone Fusion Surgery

Choosing the Right Care

How do you decide whether to see an Orthopedic doctor or an Orthopedic surgeon? The primary difference is that Orthopedic surgeons can perform surgery, and Orthopedic doctors cannot. If your PCP is confident you have an issue that is minor or clearly won’t require surgery, an Orthopedic doctor is a great option. Since an Orthopedic surgeon can do both, they are a great place to start when things are not as clear cut or surgery is likely. Your PCP can refer you to either a doctor or a surgeon. Dr. Mellano at Mellano Orthopedics is skilled in diagnostics and identification and offers both surgical and non-surgical options.

Dr. Mellano’s mission is to give his Torrance patients the freedom to keep doing the activities they love. If you are struggling with joint pain, arthritis, lack of mobility, or joint inflammation, contact Dr. Mellano for a consultation so he can help you get moving again.

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