Ankles and feet are complex structures that act as shock absorbers when we walk and help us stay physically active. The foot is made up of 26 bones, 30 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments that work together to provide support, balance, and mobility. Both orthopedists and podiatrists are trained to treat foot and ankle conditions, but when you need medical care below the knee, what type of doctor should you see?

If you’re confused about whether you should see an orthopedist or a podiatrist, it’s important to understand the key differences between these two types of doctors. Orthopedists and podiatrists perform many of the same foot and ankle procedures, and both are trained to treat conditions with or without surgery. However, when you need medical care for pain, a sports injury, or another condition, here are some guidelines on choosing a doctor who is right for you.

What is an orthopedist?

An orthopedist is a medical doctor who focuses on caring for the musculoskeletal system. This system includes bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, and soft tissues throughout the body. Its main job is to support your weight and help you move.

Orthopedists specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation, and prevention of injuries and diseases of the feet, ankles, knees, hips, spine, and other body parts. They use physical therapy, medications, exercise programs, acupuncture, mobility aids, and injections to handle a range of medical conditions, including:

  • Arthritis
  • Back pain
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Fractures
  • Hip pain
  • Joint pain
  • Ligament tears
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Soft tissue injuries
  • Spinal disc injuries
  • Sports injuries
  • Scoliosis

Some orthopedic doctors further specialize in pediatrics, sports medicine, or other areas. In some cases, an orthopedist may perform surgery to treat a more complicated issue.

What is a podiatrist?

A podiatrist is a medical doctor who focuses on foot and ankle care. In addition to treating all types of conditions and injuries that affect the foot and ankle, podiatrists provide care for bones, soft tissues, and joints and treat skin conditions below the knee.

Podiatrists treat a wide range of conditions, including:

Podiatrists are often part of a patient’s diabetic foot care team, as the condition can lead to poor blood circulation that damages the feet and lower limbs. Some podiatrists specialize in sports medicine, wound care, or pediatrics, while others perform surgery—including ankle joint replacement and flatfoot reconstruction—to address issues that don’t respond to conservative treatments.

Podiatrists can earn board certification through the American Board of Foot and Ankle Surgery and the American Board of Podiatric Medicine.

Should you see an orthopedist or a podiatrist?

As a general guideline, if you have a problem with your foot or ankle, it’s best to see a podiatrist. You should also see a podiatrist if you need foot or ankle surgery. If you have an issue with another part of your musculoskeletal system, see an orthopedist.

While an orthopedic physician can treat foot and ankle conditions, podiatrists have more specialized skills in foot and ankle health. In addition, they are trained to manage the dermatology and biomechanics of this area of the body.

Treating common foot and ankle sports injuries

Exercise and playing sports can put a lot of strain on your feet and ankles. While regular physical activity offers a number of health benefits, movements such as running and jumping can leave your feet and ankles vulnerable to injury.

Podiatrist are trained to treat a number of foot and ankle sports injuries, including:

Achilles tendonitis

The Achilles tendon runs from the calf muscle to the heel. A sudden increase in exercise intensity or duration can lead to inflammation or irritation of the tendon. Symptoms include pain in the heel when walking or running, stiffness in the area after rest, and swelling in the heel or along the tendon.

Overpronation

With a normal walking pattern, pronation is the flexible motion and slight flattening of the arch that allows the foot to adapt to ground surfaces and absorb shock. The heel contacts the ground before the weight shifts to the outside of the foot and moves toward the big toe. Overpronation, or excessive inward motion, can stretch and pull the ligaments and tendons attached to the bottom of the heel bone and cause pain.

Heel spurs

If the arch of your foot is too high or too low, you may develop bony growths on the underside of your heel bone. Running on hard surfaces, straining the

Plantar fasciitis

The fascia is a thick band of tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot (the plantar surface), from the heel to the toes. Inflammation of this tissue, called plantar fasciitis, is common among athletes who run and jump a lot. The condition occurs when the plantar fascia is strained over time, causing the soft tissues to tear or stretch. Symptoms of plantar fasciitis include a stabbing pain that occurs with your first steps after resting.

Sprained ankle

A sudden twist or turn of the foot can stretch ligaments in the ankle beyond their normal range of motion. The result is a torn ligament that causes moderate to severe pain that makes it difficult to stand or walk.

Stress fractures

Foot and ankle stress fractures are common in athletes who engage in rigorous sports that involve running or jumping. These small, hairline cracks in a bone can cause pain and swelling in the lower leg. Stress fractures are also common in those who suffer from osteoporosis.

To avoid foot and ankle injuries, warm up before you exercise, cool down afterwards, and always wear proper supportive footwear.

If you need to see a doctor for heel pain, a sports injury, or another condition, schedule an appointment with Metro Tulsa Foot & Ankle Specialists today. Our foot and ankle care specialists are available to treat you at five convenient locations.

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