UNC Health Talk

When to See an Orthopedic Surgeon

You might hear the words “orthopedic surgeon” and think, “But I don’t need surgery!”

That might be true, but it doesn’t mean you don’t need to see an orthopedic surgeon. In fact, if you have joint pain, whether from aging, injury or overuse, an orthopedic surgeon can help you find relief. Orthopedic surgeons have an arsenal of nonsurgical and surgical treatments to help improve mobility and quality of life.

“Living with joint pain is not normal and should not be ignored,” says UNC Health orthopedic surgeon Derek Reinke, MD.

What Does an Orthopedic Surgeon Do?

An orthopedic surgeon is an expert who specializes in injuries to the musculoskeletal system: the muscles, tendons, joints, ligaments and connecting nerves. These specialists diagnose and treat orthopedic injuries, such as:

  • Muscle strains
  • Chronic joint or chronic back pain
  • Arthritis
  • Tendinitis
  • Rotator cuff tears (shoulders)
  • Meniscus tears (knees)
  • Fractures
  • Osteoporosis
  • Nerve damage

No matter your age, any person who experiences pain in the hips, knees, shoulders, wrists, ankles or back should consider visiting an orthopedic surgeon.

“I see everyone from high school athletes with injuries to people in their 60s and beyond with degenerative conditions. All types of injuries can occur in a variety of demographics and ages,” Dr. Reinke says.

Acute injuries, from a sudden trauma such as a fall or a sports injury, require immediate treatment.

“When an athlete feels a pop and sudden onset of pain in a joint, such as a knee or shoulder, that’s when you should see an orthopedic surgeon,” Dr. Reinke says. If the pain is intense and the joint swells quickly, or if you experience extreme swelling, numbness and tingling, or a visible deformity of a bone, you’ll want to go to the emergency department.

Chronic pain can be progressive in nature, starting slowly and getting worse over time. Symptoms that last longer than 12 weeks also may necessitate a visit with an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Reinke says.

Here’s how to know it’s time to see an orthopedic surgeon.

Signs You Should See an Orthopedic Surgeon

  • Painful joints lasting more than 12 weeks. This type of pain often does not go away on its own and may benefit from orthopedic treatment.
  • Bruising, soreness or swelling that doesn’t respond to rest, ice, elevation and over-the-counter pain medications.
  • Limited range of motion, including difficulty using your shoulders, bending your knees or flexing any joints.
  • Inability to bear weight or feeling unstable or off-balance while walking, sitting down or climbing stairs.
  • Numbness and tingling in the extremities, such as the arms, hands, legs, feet or toes.
  • Difficulty performing your daily routine—getting dressed, going shopping, seeing friends—or moving.

Take the Next Step for Relief

An orthopedic surgeon can diagnose the cause of your pain or other symptoms and talk with you about your treatment options. Noninvasive treatments include physical therapy, massage therapy, prescription medication or cortisone injections. If nonsurgical methods aren’t providing relief, surgery may be an option.

It’s always a good choice to speak with an orthopedic surgeon because the last thing you want is for your condition to worsen or for an injury, such as a rotator cuff tear, to become irreparable if untreated, Dr. Reinke says.

“For an example, if someone has a knee ligament injury that’s not addressed, it can sometimes lead to arthritis. These types of outcomes often can be prevented,” Dr. Reinke says.

“Joints can deteriorate over time, but if a condition is addressed quickly, we can take steps to prevent that from occurring.”


If you’re experiencing joint pain, talk with your doctor. If you don’t have a doctor, find a provider near you.