How Do I Know When To See An Orthopedic Surgeon

Orthopedic surgeons are medical doctors who specialize in problems with the musculoskeletal system. The human body has over 300 bones and joints and when one of those is not functioning properly it can cause daily pain and disability. Orthopedic surgeons provide patients with these symptoms options for treatment to help improve activities of daily living, pain control and prevent further injury. If you have pain in any of your joints, common problem joints are knees, hips, spine, wrists, fingers, an orthopedic surgeon can evaluate you for definitive treatment. If you have an emergent situation, such as a broken bone or signs of infection, do not wait for an appointment with a surgeon and head to the ER for immediate care. 

Indicators That You Should See An Orthopedist

General indications that you should see an orthopedist

  1. You are experiencing chronic pain

    • Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts longer than twelve weeks. If you experience pain, even on and off, for longer than twelve weeks it is important to have an evaluation. 
  2. Inability to perform activities of daily living (ADLs) 

    • If you have pain, a limited range of motion, or instability in a bone or joint that prevents you from accomplishing daily tasks such as brushing your teeth, washing your hair, driving, or folding laundry, it is a good indication that you should seek an appointment. 
  3. Limited range of motion

    • Our joints are responsible for allowing our bodies to move in many different directions and participate in different tasks. When a joint is injured or damaged by disease it can lose the ability to move in different directional planes. This is a loss of your range of motion. A few examples of this include if your shoulder cannot reach above your head to grasp something or if your hip will not rotate enough for you to put your socks on normally. If you are losing range of motion it is a sign you should seek professional advice to prevent the problem from progressing. 
  4. You suffered an injury that is not improving

    • Patients often experience what seem like minor injuries, a sprained ankle or a tweaked knee, that fails to improve with conservative treatment after forty-eight hours. After an acute injury, if you have tried all of the basics including over the counter medications, rest, ice, elevation and compression (RICE), and your pain is not improving or worsening it is time to consult a medical professional. Some of these injuries can be evaluated by a primary care doctor, but oftentimes if conservative treatment has failed you will be referred to an orthopedic specialist for definitive diagnosis. 
  5. Your joint feels unstable when weight bearing (standing) or moving 

    • If you feel uncertain that a joint will perform its task; for example, if you are walking and feel as if your knee is going to lock up or buckle underneath you causing a fall, it is important to be evaluated. If you feel wobbly, uncertain, shaky or overall unstable when trying to perform a basic function like walking, sitting down, or climbing stairs it is a sign that something is not functioning properly in one or more of your joints. It is important to determine the underlying cause of the instability with an orthopedic surgeon. 

Common complaints that an orthopedic specialist can help treat: 

  • Shoulder Pain that prevents you from sleeping, combing your hair, dressing, working, etc
  • Trouble climbing or descending stairs
  • Tingling or Numbness in your hand Hands, especially after working on the computer or in the mornings 
  • Pain from Repetitive Motions such as golf, tennis, or work-related activities 
  • Prolonged painful joints 
  • Twisted Ankle where the pain persists or when you have instability 
  • Swollen Wrists
  • Swollen Joints 
  • Worsening Injury
  • Weak, Stiff and Bruised Muscles that do not heal with rest and time 

What To Expect From Your First Appointment With An Orthopedist

For your first appointment with an orthopedic doctor, you should bring any previous treatment records and imaging studies that you have had in the last few years regarding the area you wish to have evaluated. If you do not have any imaging studies often offices will send you for plain x rays prior to your visit to assess the bony anatomy of the problematic joint. You should also bring your picture ID and insurance cards to the appointment and be prepared to fill out a full medical history, not just pertaining to the current injury. Some offices like Dr. Martin’s are now all digital and you can fill this history outline prior to your visit. 

dr martin examining xrays

During the first visit, you will be asked about the history of your condition, this may include questions like:

  • When did this pain or disability start?
  • Was there an injury? 
  • Have you had an issue like this before?
  • What treatments or alleviating practices have you tried? 
  • What makes it worse? Better?
  • Do you have a family history of any conditions like this? 

After the initial intake, the doctor will perform a thorough examination of the joint testing for range of motion, strength, stability and neurovascular status. The doctor will often then review your images with you along with the exam findings and discuss likely diagnosis. Once you have a likely diagnosis they will outline treatment options for your specific condition.  If the surgeon recommends further testing, they may provide symptomatic care until your follow up to review the advanced images or tests. Throughout this process, you will have the opportunity to ask questions about the diagnosis and treatment. It is important to voice any concerns you have during this time and address any topic you may not understand.