Rheumatologists vs Orthopaedic Specialists – Whose Services Do You Need?
The musculoskeletal system is a collection of perfectly crafted components that work in cooperation with one another to enable both humans and animals to engage in a wide range of activities. In adult humans, it consists of 206 bones that provide the points of attachment for 650 muscles secured to them by tendons. Adjacent bones are connected and stabilised by connective tissue structures known as ligaments. Any of these components may become injured or diseased whereupon it could be necessary to consult a specialist. However, the musculoskeletal system is the focus of two types of specialists – orthopaedic surgeons and rheumatologists. To determine whose services may be most appropriate for your symptoms, here are a few pointers.
In some cases, it is quite a simple matter to identify the correct specialist. For example, traumatic injuries involving a fracture to one of the bones in the arm or the leg are automatically the concern of an orthopaedic surgeon. Since the treatment of complex fractures will frequently involve some form of surgical intervention, the clue lies in this particular specialist’s title. Around half of the cases treated by a general orthopaedic surgeon will either involve the use of nails, screws, and/or rods to repair a fracture, while elective procedures include the surgical replacement of badly damaged hip, knee, and shoulder joints. By contrast, the services provided by rheumatologists do not include surgery.
However, determining which of these specialists to consult is not always as straightforward as, for example, both have a role to play in the treatment of joint pain and it is often necessary to establish a diagnosis before committing to one or the other. Other than in an emergency where immediate expert attention may be required, the correct protocol is to consult a GP. As a primary care physician, the GPs role includes conducting a physical examination, establishing a history and list of symptoms, arranging appropriate lab tests and, based upon the collated findings, in this case, determining whether the services of a rheumatologist or an orthopaedic specialist are required, or if he or she can undertake to treat the patient directly. It’s worth noting that a medical aid may insist on a GP referral before it will agree to cover the cost of specialist treatment.
In general, the orthopaedic specialist deals with injuries to the bones, joints, ligaments, and muscles, and addresses both their repair and their prevention. He or she has also received special training in the diagnosis and surgical or medical treatment of diseases affecting the bones or joints. However, rheumatologists are often the more appropriate specialist to provide treatment services when pain occurs in multiple joints, as this tends to indicate a rheumatoid condition of which more than a hundred are known. Although often labelled as “arthritis doctors”, these healthcare professionals also treat a variety of other conditions, including various autoimmune diseases, such as dermatomyositis, fibromyalgia, systemic lupus erythematosus, polymyalgia rheumatica, and vasculitis.
Clearly, there is a great deal of overlap between these two specialist fields and, not surprisingly, it is common practice for the two to set up a combined practice together. In some cases, a doctor may even choose to pursue qualifications in both disciplines, combining the services of a rheumatologist and an orthopaedic specialist.