One of the more complicated matters regarding healthcare is understanding what kind of specialist you’re in need of. This is especially problematic when two specialists cover seemingly similar areas of expertise. A common example of this is understanding the differences between a podiatrist and an orthopedist. You might already know that both of these roles specialize in treatments around the foot, but there are some major differences that are worth understanding so you can ensure you get the best care possible.
In this article, we’ll be discussing the differences between a podiatrist and an orthopedist. We’ll be covering their differences and also which specialist you might need to see given your current circumstances.
What does a Podiatrist do?
Podiatrists (also known as a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine, or DPM) specialize in treating disorders related to the foot and ankle. They often have the knowledge and expertise to also deal with conditions regarding the lower leg, but their specialty typically lies in the foot and ankle areas of the foot. The technical term for this area is the lower extremity.
Podiatrists are trained specialists that focus on the foot and ankle from day one of their training. It involves a four-year curriculum and a minimum of two years of postgraduate residency training before one can be qualified as a podiatrist. Licensing and certification also involve written and oral examinations like the Clinical Skills Patient Encounter (Part II CSPE) which assess a candidate’s proficiency in podiatric clinical tasks. Podiatric physicians can also further specialize in primary care and orthopedics or surgery.
Typical routines of a podiatrist include:
- Evaluating patients and the foot or ankle issues they are facing
- Treating conditions such as corns, calluses, heel spurs, ingrown toenails, cysts
- Diagnosing problems like tumors, fractures, foot imbalance
- Providing consultations regarding treatments for diseases or disorders in the lower extremity
- Creating corrective orthotics such as plaster casts
- Referring patients to other physicians if their foot-related problems indicate other disorders such as diabetes or arthritis
Most podiatrists work in medical offices and hospitals alongside other healthcare specialists. However, they can also work independently if they are capable of treating a condition with their own tools and knowledge. In most cases, podiatrists will focus on conservative measures to identify conditions early and prevent them from occurring and developing into something more problematic. However, if something is out of their area of expertise, then they will typically refer you to an orthopedic surgeon or another similar healthcare professional. There are a few exceptions to this in remote areas where other specialists may not be readily available, but this is a rare circumstance.
What does an Orthopedic Surgeon do?
In contrast, an orthopedic surgeon doesn’t just focus on the lower extremity. Rather, their specialty is in the entire musculoskeletal system, meaning it’s not limited to just the foot and ankle. In fact, some orthopedics specialize in areas like the hand, shoulder, spine, hip, and knee. They are often involved in the treating of sports-related injuries as well.
An orthopedic surgeon is required to complete four years of undergraduate school, four years at an accredited medical school and five years of orthopedic surgery residency training. An additional year of specialized foot and ankle disorder training might be required for certain positions. Since an orthopedic surgeon needs to have a wider medical background, it requires more training particularly in surgical operations given that the main approach to foot care for an orthopedic surgeon is surgery.
The reason for focusing on such a wide area of the body is because many foot and ankle problems can be caused by issues in the lower back, hip or knee. This enables an orthopedic surgeon to not only identify foot and ankle-related injuries but also determine the source in relation to the rest of your body. This provides a holistic approach to foot and ankle conditions and will identify other orthopedic issues that could be directly related to the pain or issues you’re facing.
An orthopedic surgeon typically carries out the following:
- Treating all manner of sports-related injuries
- Diagnosing the source of back pain
- Consulting patients on long-term conditions such as arthritis and carpal tunnel
- Replacing painful joints when required
- Identifying the source of foot and ankle-related pain in relation to other parts of the body
Becoming an orthopedic surgeon requires over a decade of training and surgical residency in addition to passing a complex United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) test to obtain their license. As such, you can rest assured knowing you’re in good hands when you seek the services and knowledge of an orthopedic surgeon.
When should I see a Podiatrist or Orthopedic Surgeon?
While there are differences between podiatrists and orthopedic surgeons, it’s generally agreed that foot and ankle-related problems can both be identified and treated by either profession. This is because they are trained with similar principles and typically use the same type of equipment and diagnostic equipment to identify and treat a foot or ankle-related condition.
However, if you’re aware of the condition that you’re facing then a podiatrist may be a better solution for highly specialized treatments around the foot and ankle areas. On the contrary, if you know or suspect that your foot or ankle-related problem is being caused by an injury elsewhere in the body, then a general orthopedist is likely to provide better results. Since a podiatrist has little surgical training, you may also consider a general orthopedist if there is surgery involved.
At the end of the day, choosing between a podiatrist or orthopedic surgeon is a personal decision that you should make based on your current circumstances and also the options available to you. Regardless of what foot or ankle-related pain or issues you’re facing, Comp Ortho Foot & Ankle is committed to providing you with an exceptional level of service to help you identify and treat any conditions you might be facing in the lower extremities and beyond. Simply contact our office today in the Kenosha, WI area to book a consultation or learn more about the services that we offer.
Dr. Engel has been providing outstanding care to his patients in the Southeastern Wisconsin Community for the past decade and a half specializing in foot and ankle lower extremity disorders.