What's The Difference between a Podiatrist and an Orthopaedic Surgeon?

What's The Difference between a Podiatrist and an Orthopedic Surgeon?

A question that frequently arises for people who need treatment for their feet and ankles is: "What's the difference between Podiatrist and an Orthopaedic Surgeon?'“

Let's answer it quickly here today.

1. An Orthopaedic Surgeon is an MD

First, let's touch on education.

Orthopaedists must complete a four-year undergrad, then four years of formal Medical School training (covering the entire human body) after which we receive the "MD."

After receiving the MD, we embark upon a five-year orthopedic surgery residency, covering the entire musculoskeletal system.

In my particular case, after completing my residency I did a one-year fellowship at Harvard, focusing exclusively on the foot and ankle.

(Note: Orthopaedic residency positions are extremely competitive. As a result, only the top students from medical schools will get into one of these residencies. Additionally, there is rigorous accreditation for orthopedic residencies and our Board Certification with the ABOS is even more stringent when deciding who gets to practice Orthopaedic surgery.)

So, rest assured that your Orthopaedist will be well-trained.

2. A Podiatrist is a DPM

Podiatrists attend a four-year podiatry school (DPM) with a more limited global medical training, in a setting that is much less competitive for entrance than a formal allopathic Medical School.

From there, many but not all podiatrists will do a podiatry residency that is 2 or 3yrs.

3. Podiatrists Treat Basic Foot Ailments


What Does a Podiatrist Do? Podiatrists typically treat the following:

  • Ingrown toenails

  • Calluses and/or blisters

  • Fallen arches

  • Heel spurs

  • Foot deformities

  • Some of the more common foot and ankle injuries

4. Orthopaedic Surgeons Treat Complex Problems

An Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle specialist can treat all of the issues that a podiatrist can, and also manage the entire spectrum of problems that may arise in regards to the following:

  • Muscles

  • Tendons

  • Ligaments

  • Soft tissue

Additionally, an Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle specialist can also diagnose the problem and prescribe the necessary medications, bracing, and/or surgery to correct the problem, and set up a program of physical therapy to help you recover.

5. An Orthopaedic Surgeon Can Treat the Whole Leg

Although the foot and ankle have a small footprint (no pun intended), it is actually a very involved and complicated part of the skeletal system.

Also, as with many specialties, it takes years of training, study, and experience to truly understand the intricacies and effectively treat the problems that may arise with the human foot and ankle. Expertise and Training is a clear difference between a podiatrist and an orthopedic surgeon.

For instance, here's a rundown of some of the bones that we foot and ankle surgeons have to deal with when treating ankle injuries:

  • The tibia, otherwise known as the "shin bone." This bone forms the medial (inside) portion of the ankle if we look at it from the front (anterior).

  • The Fibula, which is a smaller bone located in the lower leg. This bone forms the lateral (outside) portion of the ankle.

  • The Talus, which is a smaller bone located between the tibia and fibula and the calcaneus (otherwise known as the heel bones). The talus forms the "underneath" section of the ankle.

The bottom line is that an Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle specialist can treat the entire body from head to toe, so when it's necessary to move "up the leg," we can handle it without referring you to an additional specialist. It's a critical difference between a podiatrist and an orthopedic surgeon

Should You See A Podiatrist or an Orthopaedic Surgeon?


I sometimes see people looking for a second opinion who have visited podiatrists without realizing that their condition would have been better managed in the able hands of an MD.

There is a clear difference between a podiatrist and an orthopedic surgeon, and in some cases, people will undoubtedly benefit from the extra training and capabilities of an orthopedic surgeon. 

That's why I advise you to research your specific injury before you select a surgeon. In some cases, a podiatrist will be perfectly capable of treating you.

However, if your issue requires a full range of treatment above and beyond the foot, I recommend visiting an Orthopaedic Ankle Specialist. If nothing else, they'll be able to lead you in the right direction expertly.

Dr. Elton