When considering spine surgery, many patients are often confused about the difference between a neurosurgeon and an orthopedic surgeon and, more importantly, about which specialist is best-equipped to address their condition.
Honestly, the confusion is well-warranted; there are people even within the medical industry that don’t fully understand the difference between the two fields.
In the past, neurosurgeons were primarily responsible for performing spine surgeries while orthopedic surgeons would focus on areas like the knees, shoulders and hips. But as medical technology has advanced and education has gotten better, the gap between the two fields has slowly decreased and there has been more and more crossover. As a matter of fact, in this day and age, most orthopedic surgeons can perform many of the basic procedures typically done by a neurosurgeon with similar rates of success.
That’s great for patients who are exploring their surgical options, but it can also spell confusion for someone who’s trying to figure out what kind of surgeon will best fit their needs. So we’ve taken an simple, unbiased look at both fields and broken down some of the key differences between them. Additionally, we’ve laid out some best practices to help you choose the best surgeon for your spine surgery (hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with their title). So let’s get started:
What is the difference between a neurosurgeon and an orthopedic surgeon?
Despite similar fields, the difference between a neurosurgeon and orthopedic surgeon is primarily education and specialization. Neurosurgeons spend six to seven years in residency and focus on treatment of conditions specifically within the brain and spine. Meanwhile, orthopedic surgeons spend five years in residency and specialize in the treatment of bone and joint disorders.
For neurosurgeons, a six to seven yearlong residency (which occurs after at least four years of medical school) typically consists of observing and assisting in hundreds of surgeries on the brain, spine and central nervous system almost exclusively. Many neurosurgeons, after completing their residency, will enroll in a fellowship program in order to help them specialize in a specific area of spine or brain surgery.
For example, Dr. Lim completed two fellowship programs after his residency at UCLA Medical Center. During these years, he focused specifically on complex spine surgery and minimally invasive procedures.
Orthopedic surgeons, on the other hand, spend the majority of their five to six in residency performing procedures on the spine, knees, shoulders and other areas throughout the body. There are some programs that specifically emphasize spine surgery and leave orthopedic surgeons with an education very similar to neurosurgeons, but this isn’t true across the board. Orthopedics can also complete fellowship programs after graduating from their residencies and focus on a specific area of the body and some choose spine surgery.
It’s important to note that both neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons are qualified and capable of performing most basic spine surgeries and both have their advantages depending on your specific condition.
So how do you choose between a neurosurgeon and an orthopedic surgeon who has specialized in spine surgery (also known as an orthopedic neurosurgical spine surgeon)?
How to choose the right surgeon for you
First off, recognize that even though the fields are similar, there still are important differences; the biggest of which is focus. Neurosurgeons typically specialize in complex surgery or minimally invasive spine surgery for conditions that are affecting the nerves within the spine and are specifically trained to treat conditions that are located inside the dura (the interior of the spinal canal). This means that they are well-suited to address spinal tumors, symptomatic degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, spinal fractures and other similar conditions.
Meanwhile, orthopedic surgeons who have specialized in spine surgery are generally better-suited to treat deformities within the spine, like scoliosis.
As you can see, the fields are certainly similar and focus on treating the spine, but they are certainly not the same.
This brings us to our second point: You need to recognize the importance of getting a second opinion before undergoing any kind of treatment or surgery for a spinal condition. There is absolutely nothing wrong with “shopping” around for a physician that is able to treat your specific needs in the most effective way possible. As a matter of fact, your physician should encourage it.
If you ever get the sense that you’re being dismissed by a doctor or their staff simply because you’re looking for additional opinions, alarms should be going off in your head. Surgeons who truly care about their patients will want to help them find the best treatment for their condition, regardless of where the treatment comes from.
Ideally, you should research and “interview” two or three doctors before committing to a treatment plan. Find out what areas of spine surgery they specialize in, take a look at their education, their experience, their certifications and their reviews. Most of this information is easily accessible online through their website or review websites like HealthGrades, Google or others.
Next, take the time to visit each of the physicians in person and get their opinion on how you should approach your spinal condition. Not only will this help you see what your options really look like, but it will also give you the opportunity to investigate the “human” factor of each surgeon.
Do they communicate well with you? Do they take the time to answer your questions and thoroughly discuss your treatment options? Are they open and honest about the potential outcomes of their treatment? How comfortable do you feel around them?
Spine surgery of any kind is significant and having a strong relationship of trust and honesty with your physician is incredibly important. So don’t be afraid to ask them specific questions about their education, their experience with your specific type of spinal condition, results or practice focus. You’re going to put your spine into someone else’s hands and you have the right to make sure that person is best-qualified for the job.
If you’re looking for a first, second or third opinion on your back pain, please don’t hesitate to contact us and schedule a face-to-face consultation with our board-certified neurosurgeons.