Like all medical doctors, orthopedic (also spelled orthopaedic) spine surgeons must complete a bachelor degree and then medical school. Once they've earned their MD degree, they must then complete graduate work and a residency that focuses on orthopaedics and spine surgery. Orthopaedics is the treatment of the musculoskeletal system. Orthopaedic spine surgeons specialize in treating spinal injuries and congenital (present at birth) conditions.
Orthopaedic spine surgeons complete four to five years of specialty training. The exact training they receive varies somewhat depending on what program they attend. Some programs require general surgery training before orthopaedic training. Overall, orthopaedic spine surgeons train in surgery, orthopaedic nonsurgical treatments and advanced spine-specific studies.
In addition to gaining a license to practice medicine, many orthopaedic surgeons choose to become board certified. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOP), to become board certified an orthopaedic spine surgeon you must complete an orthopaedic residency, practice for at least two years and pass both a written and oral examination by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery.
Orthopaedic spine surgeons treat a large variety of spine and back conditions. According to the Spine Institute of New York, orthopaedic spine surgeons diagnose and treat: compression fractures, degenerative discs, herniated discs, kyphosis, sciatica, scoliosis, spinal infections, spinal stenosis, spinal tumors and spondylolisthesis.
Kyphosis, an abnormal curvature in the upper (thoracic) spine, causes a hunched or rounded appearance. It may also lead to nerve damage, deformity and chronic pain. Sciatica causes pain in the lower back, buttocks and legs. Pressure on the sciatic nerve, usually caused by a protruding disc, causes sciatica. Scoliosis is a condition where the spine curves from side-to-side. The natural curvature of the spine only goes forward and backward, giving it an "S" shape.
Orthopaedic spine surgeons treat spinal conditions with a variety of surgical and nonsurgical procedures and therapies. Nonsurgical treatments include exercise, stretching, pain medication, physical therapy, steroid injections, back braces or a combination of these treatments. Surgical treatments include spinal fusion, laminectomy, diskectomy, disc replacement, kyphoplasty and microdiskectomy.
Spinal fusion surgery fuses two or more vertebra into one bone. Laminectomy enlarges the spinal canal by removing part of the lamina (the bony part of the spine that covers the spinal canal). Disc replacement involves replacing damaged discs with artificial discs. Diskectomy surgery removes the portion of a herniated disc that causes pain (because it presses on a nerve). Microdiskectomy achieves the same result as diskectomy, but it involves a smaller incision. This allows patients to recover quicker and lessens the risks of surgical complications.
Sometimes a neurosurgeon is more qualified to perform certain spinal surgeries than an orthopaedic spine surgeon. Orthopaedic spine surgeons don't have as much training in procedures that involve the dura. Surgeries that involve the dura include spinal tumors, spina bifida and tethered spinal cord syndrome.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), defines tethered spinal cord syndrome as, "...a neurological disorder caused by tissue attachments that limit the movement of the spinal cord within the spinal column." NINDS defines spina bifida as, "a neural tube defect...caused by the failure of the fetus's spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy."
According to the Spine Institute of New York, only 5 to 10 percent of all spinal diseases and conditions require surgery. The Mayo Clinic reports similar information: "Most back problems respond to nonsurgical treatments, such as anti-inflammatory medication, ice, heat, gentle massage and physical therapy...In fact, back surgery is needed in only a small percentage of cases."
- Photo Credit doctor with patient 4 image by Paul Moore from Fotolia.com
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