What’s the Difference Between a Foot and Ankle Surgeon and a Podiatrist?

The foot and ankle area is one of the more complex areas of the human skeletal system, and becoming an expert in this part of the body requires years of training, education, and practice. Both podiatrists and orthopedic surgeons who specialize in foot and ankle are options if you are seeking care for a foot or ankle problem.

The primary and most important difference is the level of training each completes. Any orthopedic surgeon must complete 4 years of medical school and a 5-6 year orthopedic surgery residency. After that, a foot and ankle fellowship consists of a year-long full-time job working alongside a seasoned orthopedic foot and ankle specialist. Altogether, a foot and ankle surgeon will have 10+ years of training.

Podiatrists attend podiatry school for 4 years followed by a 2-3 year residency, which typically focuses on surgery. Altogether, a podiatrist will have 6-7 years of training. Orthopedic surgeons will have the medical doctor (MD) credential and podiatrists will have the doctor of podiatric medicine (DPM) credential.

Podiatrists typically treat ingrown toenails, calluses, flat feet, heel spurs, and some common foot and ankle injuries. They can provide important treatment for foot problems related to diabetes and other systemic illnesses.

Orthopedists also treat heel spurs, flat feet, foot deformities, and injuries, but are also trained to manage the full spectrum of problems involving the bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and soft tissues of the foot, ankle, and lower leg. An orthopedic surgeon intimately understands the impact that the entire body can have on a foot and ankle condition. They also spend a great portion of their training working in large trauma centers and caring for extremely complex injuries and other medical problems. Bothare equipped to determine the root of your problem and prescribe medications, physical therapy, bracing, or surgery to correct the problem.

Some people believe that podiatrists are for non-surgical intervention and that you only see a foot and ankle surgeon for surgery. While this is an easy misconception to make based on the names, some podiatrists do surgery and all foot and ankle surgeons will try non-surgical treatment first if they believe it could be successful and that is the patient’s preference.

The bottom line? While orthopedic surgeons and podiatrists treat a similar overall scope of foot and ankle problems, there are a few specific things each will treat. For orthopedic surgeons, this includes major trauma surgery (complex fractures), ankle replacements and ankle fusions. For podiatrists, this includes ingrown toenails, diabetic foot problems and custom foot orthotics. If you are unsure, both are probably appropriate for your initial appointment or our scheduling team can help guide you.

Call (402) 609-3000 for an appointment with a foot and ankle orthopedic surgeon, or take our foot and ankle pain assessment.

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