The musculoskeletal system of the human body is made up of bones, muscles, and joints. It contains 206 bones and many muscles, ligaments, and tendons to help you move around. If even one of these is injured, it can impact your mobility and result in pain and other symptoms.

bones in the human body Orthopedic surgery specializes in bone, joint and muscle procedures

When a patient has a serious condition, injury, or illness affecting their musculoskeletal system, orthopedic surgery is sometimes necessary to treat or correct the issue. Often, orthopedic surgeons will work with other specialties, like neurology, to create treatment plans for their patients.

Preparing for Orthopedic Surgery

Most non-emergency orthopedic surgeries are not life-threatening, which means you will have time to schedule and prepare for them well in advance. As with other types of surgery, there are some things you can do to prepare physically and mentally for orthopedic surgery to improve the success rate of the surgery and lower your risk of complications.

Follow preoperative instructions: If your doctor or nurse provides instructions about what to do before your surgery, it is important to follow them as closely as possible. Common pre-surgery instructions include taking a prescription, performing exercises or stretches, and refraining from food or drink. Be sure to tell your surgical team if you failed to comply with any instructions before your surgery.

Inform your anesthesiologist about allergies: If you have ever had a negative reaction to anesthesia (or any other drugs or materials), it is important to tell your anesthesiologist about it. Allergic reactions can take a variety of forms, up to and including life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

Do not eat or drink 8 hours before surgery: Surgeries must be performed on an empty stomach to avoid aspiration (stomach contents being expelled into the esophagus) caused by anesthetics. Typically, a nurse will call you the day before your surgery to remind you not to eat or drink before the procedure.

Understand your insurance coverage: Because most orthopedic operations can be scheduled well in advance, it is important that you know what your insurance will cover (and not cover). It is also a good idea to talk with the hospital or medical center where your surgery is taking place to see if there are any options for deferring or defraying the costs of your operation.

Be your own advocate: Don’t be afraid to ask questions – and keep asking until you understand everything you need to know! Surgery can be scary, but knowing what to expect can help you face those fears head on and prepare mentally for what’s to come. You can also bring someone you trust to ask questions you might not think of, such as a spouse, sibling, adult child, or good friend.

Types of Orthopedic Surgery

The musculoskeletal system is made up of a lot of different parts. Different injuries and illnesses affecting different parts of the body require varying types of orthopedic surgeries.

Pediatric Orthopedics

Pediatric orthopedics focuses on the general care of the entire musculoskeletal system in children. Since children’s bodies are smaller, pediatric orthopedic surgeons must have a high attention to detail and a refined skillset.

Hand and Foot

The hands and feet are very complex and contain small structures. Within each hand and foot are many different bones, tendons, and fine muscles, so surgeons operating on them require a deep knowledge of the different parts. These surgeons commonly treat conditions like arthritis and carpal tunnel.

Trauma Surgery

After a major accident, trauma surgeons treat patients requiring emergency care. These surgeons are trained to act quickly and have a wide range of knowledge about bodily injuries. Orthopedic trauma surgeons also often help their patients with rehabilitative procedures.

Spinal Surgery

The spine is one of the most important parts of the body and is the center of the skeletal system. Spinal injuries and deformities can impact the entire body, sometimes causing paralysis or severe pain. Spinal surgeons address issues related to the spine, working carefully around the complex system of nerves.

Sports Medicine

Playing sports can lead to broken bones and joint issues. In severe cases, orthopedic surgeons specializing in sports medicine are required to treat an athlete’s injuries.

Joint Preservation

Joint preservation often overlaps with sports medicine, but many surgeons work specifically in this area. Surgeons specializing in joint preservation will often treat injuries caused by joint degradation in the knees, elbows, and hips, focusing on ligaments and tendons. Sometimes, especially in older patients, surgeons may have to replace joints.

When Is Orthopedic Surgery Needed?

Before resorting to surgery, doctors will often recommend non-surgical treatments, like medication and physical therapy. When these methods are not effective, orthopedic surgery may be required. Most patients will continue taking some form of medication (often for pain relief) and receiving physical therapy after surgery.

Common Issues Requiring Orthopedic Surgery
  • Ligament tears or strains
  • Tendon injuries
  • Torn cartilage
  • Bursitis
  • Bone fractures or dislocations
  • Bone tumors
  • Chronic back pain
  • Ruptured discs
  • Scoliosis
  • Sciatica
  • Osteoporosis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Pulled muscles
  • Unequal leg length
  • Club foot
  • Sports injuries
  • Growth abnormalities

If you are affected by any of these conditions, speak to your doctor to find out if orthopedic surgery is right for you.

Orthopedic Surgery Techniques

Orthopedic surgery is a highly technical discipline, with many different surgical techniques and procedures used. Types of surgeries that orthopedic specialists commonly perform include:


This procedure uses a camera to help surgeons spot, diagnose, and treat problems within a joint. Less invasive than open surgeries, this method leads to a shorter recovery time for patients.


In the case of joint issues, surgeons may use a process that fuses bone parts together. This technique uses bone grafts and metal rods that allow the pieces to heal into a single bone.

Joint Replacement

Arthritic and damaged joints can cause a great deal of pain. Surgeons may recommend a joint replacement, in which the joint is replaced with a prosthesis. Hip and knee replacements are the most common, especially among older patients.

Internal Fixation

Severe bone fractures may require a surgical procedure to hold the broken pieces in the correct position. This is done using metal pins, screws, or plates while the bone heals.


An osteotomy is an operation to correct a bone deformity by cutting and correcting the bone position.

Soft Tissue Repair

Sports injuries and trauma can cause tendons and ligaments to tear. This procedure is used to remedy the issue.

Computer-Assisted Surgery

Many surgeons use computers to assist in typical procedures to help improve the outcome. As technology advances, computers are assisting with operations more and more, helping to increase success rates and reduce recovery time for patients.

Common Complications and Side Effects of Orthopedic Surgery

As with any type of surgical procedure, orthopedic surgery carries some risk. Orthopedic surgeries rarely result in serious complications, and many can be treated effectively. Before undergoing any orthopedic procedure, talk to your surgeon and medical team about risk factors, potential complications, and what you can expect during your recovery period. Some pain and tenderness around the site of the surgery can be expected.

While complications and side effects vary depending on the type of orthopedic surgery, some common issues that can arise during and following surgery include:

  • Pain
  • Infection after surgery
  • Blood clots
  • Damage to blood vessels
  • Nerve damage
  • Bone fracture
  • Arthritis
  • Allergic reaction to anesthesia
  • Scar formation
  • Re-injury to the operated area

If you or someone you love has recently had orthopedic surgery and is experiencing side effects, speak to your doctor soon to ensure your healing is on track. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe a blood thinner like Xarelto or Pradaxa to prevent potentially life-threatening blood clots from forming.

Since orthopedic surgery is designed to solve issues with movement and the skeletal structure of the body, recovery time will vary. After surgery, most patients need to spend time rehabilitating and performing exercises to strengthen the parts of the body impacted by the surgery. If necessary, your doctor will arrange for you to see a physical therapist who will identify exercises to help heal and strengthen your body.