This Is What an Orthopedic Doctor First Notices About You

Updated: Jun. 21, 2023

The doctors who address your musculoskeletal system—including those achy joints—have a unique lens on the human body. Here's what catches their eye first.

orthopedic doctor holding a tablet with an X-ray on it
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Orthopedic doctors are trained to spot tell-tale signs of bone and joint issues that, if you’re a patient, you may have been living with so long that you don’t even notice them anymore. Starting from the way you walk from the waiting room to the exam room, orthopedic doctors know the smallest details could be indicators of your orthopedic health.

Here are seven initial observations with insight from top orthopedic doctors.

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Physiotherapist checking knee of female patient stock
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1. Your overall physical condition

An orthopedic doctor’s observations go beyond the surface. In their eyes, your weight and muscle tone serve as barometers for your overall health. Excess weight can stress your joints and muscles, while inadequate muscle tone could mean you’re not getting enough exercise, which might jeopardize joint health.

Michael L. Parks, MD, an attending surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, elaborated in a 2019 op-ed for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS): “It is common for me to see patients who complain of significant limitation from painful arthritic hips or knees.” Dr. Parks added: “A significant proportion of patients I see are also obese.” This creates a distressing cycle where painful joints and excess weight combine to limit mobility.

As orthopedic specialists, their mission is to restore patient mobility. Both joint replacement procedures and non-surgical arthritis therapies have demonstrated exceptional success in achieving this goal.

Rear view of doctor with patient in corridor
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2. The way you walk

Think your unique strut is just a style statement? It can actually reveal a lot about your musculoskeletal health. Your stride tells a tale that the orthopedic doctor is keen to read. An unusual gait could hint at ailments such as hip dysplasia or knee osteoarthritis.

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Asian woman physician doing legs raise exercise for senior man patient. Attractive female specialist doctor doing physical therapy procedure for elderly mature male to stretch and recover legs muscle.
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3. The silent language of discomfort

Words are not the only way to express pain. An orthopedic specialist reads your non-verbal cues: a wince, a gritted jaw, or a protective posture. They are trained to decipher these subtle languages of discomfort. Silent yet expressive, these signs guide the doctor to your pain points, even if you don’t mention them.

Young male physiotherapist examining young woman patient in a physic room
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4. Testing your moves

Ever had someone watch you bend, stretch, or twist? Orthopedic doctors do just that to gauge your joint flexibility and muscle strength. Struggles with such movements might suggest conditions like arthritis or tendonitis.

As Gregory G. Caronis, MD, FAAOS, an orthopaedic surgeon in Illinois, mentions in an op-ed for the AAOS: “Osteoarthritis is one of the leading causes of disability in people over the age of 55. I tell my patients to stay active because exercise strengthens the joints and the surrounding muscles. It helps to reduce stiffness and associated pain.”

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Professional orthopedist examining the little patient's leg in the clinic. Patient at the physiotherapy doing physical exercises with his therapist
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5. Redness and swelling

Inflamed or swollen joints serve as red flags, alerting your doctor to possible issues like a sprained ankle, a torn ligament, or an infected joint. These signs are your body’s silent SOS—its innate wisdom initiating the healing process.

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Painful scar after knee surgery
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6. Traces of the past

Your body carries imprints of your past, and orthopedic doctors can read these traces. Surgical scars or noticeable deformities could be chapters from your medical history, affecting your current health narrative. Your past injuries or surgeries can offer valuable insights to your doctor.

Frederick M. Azar, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon in Tennessee, explains via AAOS how some injuries leave distinct trademarks, like the “popeye muscle,” caused by a biceps tendon rupture at the elbow.

Nurse assisting senior with walking cane
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7. Assisted movements

Do you use crutches, a cane, or a wheelchair? These assistive devices provide valuable information about the severity of your condition. Furthermore, if your device isn’t the right fit, it can exacerbate your issues. In their careful observation, an orthopedic doctor can help ensure you’re moving as comfortably and safely as possible.

Remember, these initial observations are only the tip of the iceberg in understanding your overall orthopedic health. Regular check-ups, preventive care, and open dialogue with your orthopedic specialist are important to maintaining your musculoskeletal well-being. While it’s tempting to self-diagnose, use this newfound knowledge to foster informed discussions about your orthopedic health instead.

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