When to See (and Not See) an Orthopedic Surgeon

The majority of your body is comprised of your musculoskeletal system. It’s made up of 206 bones, 4,000 tendons, more than 900 ligaments and about 640 muscles along with cartilage, joints and other connective tissue. When the musculoskeletal system is in optimum working condition, you move freely and experience a great degree of flexibility.  When even a small part isn’t working, however, symptoms can be painfully debilitating.

Orthopedic surgeons – also known as orthopedists – are musculoskeletal system specialists. Their extensive training enables them to diagnose and treat problems like fractures, tears, sprains, ruptures, dislocations and other conditions associated with those areas. Surgery is just one of the recommended treatment for musculoskeletal system conditions.

For most people, the first step on the road to recovery when they experience musculoskeletal pain is a visit to their primary care physician (PCP). Even though many health insurance providers don’t require a referral to a specialist (that is, you aren’t required to see schedule an appointment with a specialist), there are benefits to seeing your PCP first. The most obvious benefit being that your PCP is familiar with your personal and family health history. He or she can help rule out anything that might contribute to your presenting issue. For instance, cholesterol-lowering drugs can cause muscle or joint aches in some people.

It’s possible to determine if your PCP can help you with your musculoskeletal system complaint fairly quickly. Your level of pain and the impact the pain has on your mobility and flexibility may warrant a quick escalation to an orthopedist’s care. Other conditions that can benefit from an orthopedic surgeon’s attention include:

  • Musculoskeletal pain that began after an injury and doesn’t respond to basic treatment.
  • Hip or knee pain that has gradually become worse and/or is worse with weight bearing.
  • Moderate or advanced arthritis of the knee or hip.
  • Ongoing musculoskeletal pain that is not responding to basic treatment.

If your health care sleuthing with your PCP results in the determination that the next step is a visit to an orthopedic surgeon, seek your PCP’s recommendation as well as that of friends and family members. Some orthopedists specialize in a specific body part, so it’s possible to work with one who is very familiar with your particular concern.  And, of course, your health insurance provider may have network guidelines that you need to consider.

Even though you’re visiting an orthopedic surgeon, treatment does not always include surgery. An orthopedist will walk you through a treatment plan that probably starts with x-rays, MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and/or other diagnostic tools to help fine tune next steps. Other preliminary treatment options may include drug therapy, cortisone injections, an exercise or physical therapy plan and/or therapy tools like canes or splints.

But if the best treatment option is surgery, rest assured that you’re working with a surgeon who understands what needs to be done to provide you with an improved quality of life. Your orthopedic surgeon will offer a surgery treatment plan that includes post-operative rehabilitation as well as recommendations for improved long term musculoskeletal health.

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