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What is orthopaedics?

From fast-paced emergency surgery to long-term rehabilitation, find out about the many sides of this medical specialism.

Orthopaedics is the branch of surgery that deals with the skeleton and muscles. Orthopaedic surgeons treat patients who have broken their bones, or have infections of the muscles. It is related to rheumatology, the branch of medicine which deals with conditions like arthritis that affect the joints and tissue.

What do orthopaedic surgeons do?

Orthopaedic surgeons work in Accident and Emergency and trauma wards, performing surgery on people who have had accidents. They might also work in orthopaedic clinics, providing advice and consultation to doctors treating patients who have less severe problems, or need long-term care.

Many orthopaedic surgeons specialise in treating a certain part of the body, such as the hands or ankles, or in treating young children (paediatric orthopaedics) or sports injuries.

Orthopaedic surgery techniques include:

  • Fracture repair: repairing broken bones
  • Joint replacements: replacing damaged hips and knees with prosthetic versions
  • Laminectomy: removing portions of damaged vertebrae from the spine
  • Chondroplasty: operating on the cartilage around a joint
  • Surgical debridement: removing dead or diseased tissue

These procedures might be performed as ‘open surgery’, where a large incision is made into the patient, or as ‘arthroscopy’, where surgery is done through a small tube or endoscope.

As well as rheumatologists and physiotherapists, orthopaedic surgeons often work closely with neurosurgeons, who operate on the brain, plastic surgeons, who reconstruct skin and tissue, and orthopaedic technicians, who plaster patients who have broken bones.

How do I get into orthopaedics?

To become a specialist orthopaedic surgeon, students must complete an orthopaedic and trauma surgery programme – which usually lasts at least six years – after they have completed their initial medical training and foundation years. Students interested in becoming orthopaedic technicians need to have work experience in a trauma ward or orthopaedic clinic, before studying a five week course.

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