Do you, or someone you love, live with a condition that affects your bones, joints or muscles? You’re not alone. According to the Department of Health, approximately one in three Australians have a musculoskeletal condition. Of these, 3.6 million have arthritis and 4 million have chronic back pain. Also, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare note one in two people with arthritis report experiencing moderate to severe pain.

If you have a musculoskeletal condition, help is available. A consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon could be your first step towards pain relief, improved function, and a better quality of life. 

Here are answers to 10 common questions about orthopaedic surgery.

1. What is orthopaedic surgery?

Orthopaedic surgery is the medical specialty that deals with disorders of the musculoskeletal system – the bones, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves. Today, orthopaedic surgeons see people across their life span. They are medical doctors with extensive additional training to diagnose and manage musculoskeletal disorders, either through surgical or non-surgical methods such as rehabilitation or medication.  

2. What are some signs that I should see an orthopaedic surgeon?

Some common signs that you could benefit from a consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon include:

  • Chronic pain – if pain is affecting your everyday life, help is out there
  • Trouble performing your daily activities – such as difficulty climbing stairs, getting on or off the toilet, or hanging out washing due to pain or stiffness
  • Increasing stiffness or red, swollen joints – these can indicate a joint condition such as arthritis
  • Your GP or allied health professional recommends it – they will know when it’s time to look deeper into a musculoskeletal condition
  • You have an injury that doesn’t seem to be getting better – there may be more happening than meets the eye, which an orthopaedic specialist will know how to diagnose and treat
  • You want to know your treatment options – an orthopaedic surgeon can discuss what’s available to you, including surgical and non-surgical management options
  • Your loved ones want you to – they have your best interests at heart and may see changes you haven’t noticed or have learnt to put up with.
Talk to your GP about getting a referral to an orthopaedic surgeon.  

3. What conditions do orthopaedic surgeons treat?

Some of the musculoskeletal conditions orthopaedic surgeons treat include:

  • Traumatic injuries, including broken bones (fractures)
  • Arthritis, including joint replacement surgery
  • Sports injuries – such as tendon, ligament and cartilage tears
  • Back pain, disc ruptures and spinal stenosis
  • Soft tissue injuries, such as sprains and overuse problems
  • Hip problems, such as labral tears, bursitis and impingement
  • Knee problems, such as meniscal tears, ligament ruptures, and bow legs
  • Shoulder problems, such as dislocation, instability, frozen shoulder and rotator cuff tears
  • Wrist, hand and finger issues such as carpal tunnel syndrome, Dupuytren’s disease and trigger finger
  • Ankle and foot problems, such as Achilles tendon injuries, ankle instability, bunions and hammer toes
  • Issues in children, such as club foot and hip dysplasia
  • Osteoporosis
  • Bone tumours
Some orthopaedic surgeons focus on research, exploring different conditions and ways to improve delivery of orthopaedic care. Many also provide medico-legal consulting related to orthopaedic issues.  

4. What types of orthopaedic surgery are there?

Orthopaedic surgeons are trained to perform a wide variety of procedures. Common orthopaedic surgery examples include arthroscopy (exploration of a joint through keyhole surgery) and arthroplasty (joint replacement surgery). 

Orthopaedic surgeons are always looking for ways to do things better, so new types of surgery become available from time to time. One example is minimally invasive orthopaedic surgery, in which operations that previously required a large incision are now performed by keyhole surgery. Another example is robot-assisted surgery. Advanced computer and robotic technology can help surgeons see the exact location of different tissues and use their instruments very precisely. 

Some orthopaedic surgeons are generalists and perform a range of procedures. Others focus on specific body areas, such as the hip, knee, shoulder, hand or spine. And some focus on different areas of practice, such as paediatrics, sports injuries or trauma management. 

It’s important to note that surgery is only one avenue of treatment an orthopaedic specialist might recommend. It is typically only considered when necessary. For example, if you’ve had an accident, you may need an operation to repair broken bones. If you have arthritis, surgery may be advised if symptoms are negatively affecting your function and other treatments haven’t provided adequate relief.

5. What is elective orthopaedic surgery?

Elective orthopaedic surgery is the term used to describe an operation you choose, or ‘elect’, to have. Examples include hip, knee or shoulder joint replacement and keyhole orthopaedic surgery to repair a torn ligament or tendon.

6. How much does orthopaedic surgery cost?

This will depend on several factors, such as the type of surgery, the equipment needed to perform it, and the costs associated with anaesthesia and rehabilitation. 

For private orthopaedic surgery, the costs are covered by some health funds. The amount you are covered for will depend on your fund and policy, so check with them for details. The Department of Veterans Affairs may also cover costs for eligible veterans. 

If you need to see an orthopaedic surgeon in relation to injuries sustained in a road or work accident, you may be able to claim costs through the Transport Accident Commission or WorkCover insurance. 

Your surgeon can explain more about surgery costs and funding options.

7. How long does it take to become an orthopaedic surgeon?

In Australia, it takes approximately 14 years to become a qualified orthopaedic surgeon. After obtaining a medical degree, they must complete at least three years’ work in a clinical setting, including some orthopaedic surgery experience. Then they can apply for an orthopaedic training position, which takes an average of five years to complete. 

Successful graduates of this program can apply for Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (FRACS) and Fellowship of the Australian Orthopaedic Association (FAOrthA) to become recognised orthopaedic specialists. 

Some will compete additional training in an area of interest, such as hip, knee or upper limb surgery.

8. What happens during a consult with an orthopaedic surgeon?

Your consult is about getting to the bottom of your problem and developing a plan to manage it. Your orthopaedic surgeon will ask questions about your overall health and your condition, such as when and how it started and how it is impacting your daily life. 

They will look at the affected area, checking for things such as swelling, range of movement, strength, and grinding or clicking. 

They will review any tests you’ve had, such as blood tests or X-rays, and possibly refer you for other tests, such as an MRI. 

Then they will discuss their findings with you and explain your management options. You may be given further information and resources about your condition and treatment choices. Your surgeon will provide their opinion about which course of action they believe is best.

9. How long does it take to recover from orthopaedic surgery?

Recovery times after orthopaedic surgery vary widely depending on the operation you’ve had, from a few weeks to several months or more. Your surgeon will discuss recovery and rehabilitation timeframes with you.

10. What questions should I ask my orthopaedic surgeon?

Before you see an orthopaedic surgeon, some preparation can help ensure you get the most from your visit. Here are some questions you might like to ask your surgeon.

  • What are the benefits and risks of my different treatment options?
  • Why are you recommending this course of action for me?
  • How many of these operations have you performed?
  • What might happen if I don’t do what you recommend?
  • Do I need to do any ‘prehabilitation’ to prepare me for surgery?
  • How long will it take me to recover and what rehabilitation is involved?
  • How is pain managed after surgery?
  • How long until I can go back to work or sport?
  • How much will it cost?
Do you suffer from hip, knee or shoulder arthritis? Would you like to know more about the world-class orthopaedic team and state-of-the-art facilities at Healthscope? Click HERE to find out more and get our info sheets on joint replacement surgery for hip, knee and shoulder arthritis.  

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