What’s the Difference Between a Rheumatologist and an Orthopedic Physician?

When it comes to seeking diagnosis for chronic pain or an activity-related injury, it’s important to choose the type of medical specialist that’s right for you. Consulting with your primary care physician is the first step. They can provide a diagnosis through x-rays and tests, and, based on your condition, a recommendation for a relevant specialist. But what is the right type of specialist? It can seem like there are a lot of similarities between two different types of doctors, especially if you’re unsure of your affliction. Such is the case for a rheumatologist and an orthopedic physician, both of whom treat the musculoskeletal system. Distinguishing between the two and determining which is right for you can seem daunting.

That’s why we’ve broken it down in this article—keep reading to find out the ins and outs of each.

What is a Rheumatologist?

Rheumatologists are trained to study the musculoskeletal system, including bones, joints, ligaments, nerves, muscles, and tendons. They often treat chronic conditions that affect multiple organ systems, such as autoimmune diseases, inflammatory conditions, or unexplainable musculoskeletal conditions. This includes disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, or fibromyalgia.

Rheumatologists specialize in pain unrelated to a specific event, or synchronous pain in different parts of the body. Examples can include joint pain coinciding with back pain, reoccurring muscle aches, or any sort of unprompted bone/muscle/joint discomfort.

For treatment, rheumatologists use nonsurgical options, like medicine, physical therapy, or individualized health plans. In the case of most chronic conditions handled by a rheumatologist, there’s no real cure, so they will simply work with you to manage the disease.

What is an Orthopedic Physician?

Orthopedic physicians handle many of the same conditions as rheumatologists, and more. Like rheumatologists, orthopedists specialize in the musculoskeletal system. However, unlike rheumatologists, an orthopedic physician will focus on acute trauma as well as interconnected organ systems.

Orthopedic physicians handle injuries sustained through sports, repetitive activity, or a single incident. A torn ligament, a broken bone, a stress fracture, dislocations—these are all common examples. Locations of specific injuries handled by orthopedic physician include ankles, the back, elbows, hands, hips, the neck, shoulders, knees, feet, and wrists.

Beyond acute injuries, orthopedic physicians can treat chronic or lifestyle-induced disorders like arthritis, osteoporosis, bunions, club foot, carpal tunnel, bone tumors, or hip dysplasia. Long-term damages caused by repetitive movement, like working in a factory or playing tennis, are handled by orthopedic doctors.

While rheumatologists always use nonsurgical treatment options, orthopedic physicians often use surgery in conjunction with nonsurgical treatments. Orthopedists are focused on proactive treatment and future prevention, while rheumatologists typically focus on simply managing chronic illness or inflammation. This means that rheumatologists often refer patients to orthopedists, if surgery becomes a viable option.

One third of all adults in the United States are suffering from some sort of musculoskeletal affliction, at any given time. And it’s no wonder— leading an active lifestyle, working in certain environments, and also just the process of aging itself are all risk-factors. At some point or another, most of us have an injury. What’s important is seeking the right professional for you.

If you are in need of an orthopedic doctor in the Louisville, Kentucky-area who is board certified in orthopedic surgery and sports medicine, contact Dr. Stacie Grossfeld today at Orthopaedic Specialists. We accept most types of insurance and we also offer same day appointments. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 502-212-2663.