Orthopedic Surgeon vs. Neurosurgeon:
What’s the Difference?

It’s common for patients to ask us: what’s the difference between an orthopedic surgeon and a neurosurgeon?

The confusion is warranted, as some referring physicians may not fully understand the difference. 

Both perform surgeries on the spine, both use advanced, minimally invasive techniques…but there are significant differences in training, and there are some procedures of the spine that only a neurosurgeon may perform.

Patients can make better decisions about their health care if they understand the differences (and similarities!) that exist between these two distinct medical fields.

What Is an Orthopedic Surgeon?

Orthopedic surgeons are specialists who treat disorders of the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles.

Have you ever broken a bone? If so, it’s likely you were treated by an orthopedic surgeon. Orthopedic surgeons treat many common conditions; things like broken bones, sports injuries, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and arthritis.

Orthopedic surgeons can be generalists or they may choose to specialize. Some orthopedists, for example, might specialize in a specific condition, like scoliosis, or a specific procedure, like hip replacement surgery.

Generally speaking, orthopedic surgeons complete a five-year residency following their medical school training. Specialized fellowships may also be pursued.

What’s more, orthopedic surgeons have extensive training in nonsurgical treatments specific to the musculoskeletal system.

It’s common for orthopedic surgeons to explore nonsurgical options like physical therapy and pain management medication before recommending surgery.

What Is a Neurosurgeon?

Neurosurgeons are specialists who treat a range of conditions involving the central nervous system, composed of the brain, spinal cord, and spinal column, and the peripheral nervous system, a network of nerves throughout the body. 

As a medical field, neurosurgery is already highly specialized, however, it is not uncommon for neurosurgeons to focus on a specific procedure like brain tumor excision or spine surgery.

Neurosurgeons may also choose to focus on a specific neurological condition; for example, Huntington’s disease, ALS or epilepsy.

While neurosurgeons can provide an array of surgical procedures, their treatment offerings or recommendations also extend to nonsurgical options.

Because of their specialization and proclivity towards treating the spine, other physicians including primary care doctors, oncologists and orthopedists often consult with a neurosurgeon when determining a treatment plan.

Neurosurgery residency generally lasts seven to nine years, with much of that time dedicated to surgical training specific to the brain and spine.

What’s more, only a board-certified neurosurgeon can operate inside of the spinal canal (i.e., the dura mater). Because of this, neurosurgeons alone possess the specialization to treat spinal tumors, degenerative disk disease and similar spinal conditions.

Unlike broken bones, which are fairly common, you may have had no practical experience with a neurosurgeon prior to a referral.

Why the ‘Differences’ Matter

If you suffer from a neck or back condition that requires surgical intervention, your primary care provider may have said, “you need a spine surgeon.” But what exactly is a spine surgeon and how do patients find a good one?

Technically, there’s no such thing as a spine surgeon. When someone says spine surgeon, what they really mean is orthopedic surgeon or neurosurgeon.

Over the years, advancements in technology and technique have blurred the lines between these two medical fields, at least in terms of treatment options. It is not uncommon, for example, for a neurosurgeon to be familiar with traditional orthopedic therapies and vice versa.

If you’re considering surgery, it makes sense that you’d want to learn more about the specific competencies of your surgeon.

Here are a few key factors that can aid your decision-making process:

  • The neck and back is a complex musculoskeletal system (i.e., made up of bones, ligaments, etc.) supported by the spine—a delicate, essential part of the central nervous system.  
  • Orthopedic surgeons treat disorders of the musculoskeletal system (i.e., bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles).
  • Orthopedic surgeons treat things such as: sport-related injuries, spinal deformities, degenerative or age-related spine conditions, and arthritic spine conditions like osteoarthritis.
  • Neurosurgeons treat conditions involving the central nervous system (i.e., the brain, spinal cord, and spinal column), and the peripheral nervous system, a network of nerves throughout the body. 
  • Neurosurgeons treat things such as: stroke, brain and intradural tumors, epilepsy; movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease; neurological conditions like ALS; and chronic pain conditions that affect the central or peripheral nervous systems.
  • Compared to orthopedic surgeons, neurosurgeons complete a longer residency program that often includes more surgical experience.
  • Cross-specialization exists between orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons. However, there are some procedures that only a neurosurgeon may perform.

Experienced Neurosurgeons in Southern Colorado

There are wonderful orthopedic surgeons and there are wonderful neurosurgeons—it’s up to every patient to decide for themselves which field is best suited to treat their needs.  

When choosing a specialist, don’t be afraid to ask important questions about training and hands-on experience. It can be helpful to make a list of your questions and concerns so that you can discuss them with your surgeon and other health care providers.

Colorado Springs Neurological Associates (CSNA) is an experienced group of neurologists, neurosurgeons and neurophysiologists working in concert to provide superior neurological testing, evaluation, interpretatio, and treatment to people living in Southern Colorado.

Our board-certified neurosurgeons, and the rest of the team at Colorado Springs Neurological Associates, look forward to working alongside you and your family to develop a personalized treatment plan.

CLICK HERE if you’d like to learn more about neurosurgery at CSNA, or call 719-473-3272 for immediate assistance.

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