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Orthopedics is a branch of medicine that focuses on the care of the musculoskeletal system, which consists of muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and nerves. Even those who are unfamiliar with the terminology have likely encountered some form orthopedic care in their lifetime – an ankle sprain is one of several common orthopedic injuries and even pediatricians must look out for orthopedic abnormalities and refer children to specialists when necessary. It is a particularly common practice of medicine in the world of athletics. If you’ve ever experienced a sore ankle or the march of time is wearing on your joints (it happens to the best of us), or if you’re just curious and you want to stay in top shape, read on to learn about the musculoskeletal system and the orthopedic care available to treat and maintain it.

The basics of orthopedics

Orthopedic medicine covers a range of care and treatments from joint and spine problems to sports injuries, trauma, and fractures. The orthopedist uses both surgical and nonsurgical approaches to treat musculoskeletal issues and they often work as part of a larger orthopedic treatment team that can include physician assistants, nurse practitioners, athletic trainers, and occupational and physical therapists. An orthopedist treats several conditions, which may be present from birth, or may result from an injury or age-related wear and tear. These conditions include joint pain from arthritis, bone fracture, back and neck pain, and sports injuries, among others. Some orthopedists specialize in different areas such as upper extremity, foot and ankle, and spine conditions.

Why it matters: the functions of the musculoskeletal system

Orthopedic medicine serves to maintain and care for the intricacies and functions of your musculoskeletal system in order to live a healthy life. The musculoskeletal system has some rather obvious functions, as well as others you may have taken for granted. The 5 basic functions of the musculoskeletal system are:

  • Mobility - Skeletal muscles pull on bones to create movement, they create facial expressions, and they enable breathing by moving respiratory muscles.
  • Support - Muscles support your internal organs.
  • Blood circulation - Cardiac muscles are responsible for the contractility of the heart which helps to pump blood throughout the body.
  • Protection - Skeletal muscles cushion and protect the body’s internal organs.
  • Heat generation - Muscle contraction produces heat as byproduct of metabolism, helping to maintain your internal body temperature.

Prevention: how to keep the musculoskeletal system healthy

Because your body’s systems and functions interact with and are affected by each other, the best way to keep the musculoskeletal system healthy is to maintain good overall health. More specifically, you can keep your bones and muscles healthy and optimize your long-term mobility and agility by doing the following:

  • Exercise regularly - Naturally, the stronger your muscles, the more effectively they can support and protect your joints. Exercise also increases flexibility which reduces joint pain.
  • Get sufficient sleep - The health benefits of a good night’s rest are endless, and they include the benefit of resting your bones and muscles so they can recover.
  • Eat a balanced diet - Eating fruits, vegetables, and lean protein is linked to stronger bones and helps you maintain a healthy weight, which prevents added pressure on bones and joints.
  • Avoid smoking tobacco - Bones, muscles and soft tissue require adequate blood flow to work effectively and smoking tobacco decreases blood flow throughout your body.
  • Schedule regular checkups and health screenings - Regular doctor visits help detect abnormalities as early as possible and keep you on a healthy track.

When should I visit an orthopedist?

A referral is often required for a visit with an orthopedist, so your primary care physician can help you find the specialist you need. Be sure to communicate any musculoskeletal abnormalities to your doctor and ask about orthopedic care if you experience any of the following:

  • Joint pain
  • Grinding, snapping, or popping when you move an affected joint
  • Inflammation or swelling
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Restricted movement due to pain
  • Stiffness

Non-surgical treatment options

While modern medicine has presented us with impressive orthopedic surgeries that can replace joints, fuse bones, and repair tissue, there are many less invasive non-surgical options worth exploring depending on your injury or musculoskeletal issue including the following:

  • Devices that hold bones or joints in a specific position to aid healing such as braces, slings, casts, or splints
  • Joint injections such as cortisone or other steroid medication, or viscosupplementation- the injection of hyaluronic acid into an affected joint to help reduce pain and swelling
  • Non-opioid medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Physical therapy to loosen stiff muscles or improve muscle strength
  • Occupational therapy to help you perform everyday tasks such as getting dressed
  • Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy, which uses injections of a patient’s own platelets to accelerate the healing of injured tendons, ligaments, muscles, and joints.
  • Orthotics, custom shoe inserts that support proper foot positioning

Ultimately, how you move is how you feel and although aches, pains, and strains are inevitable, you can keep your musculoskeletal system in check by maintaining your overall health, educating yourself on orthopedic care, and seeing your doctor regularly for a healthier and more agile way of life.

Palomar Health’s world-class Orthopedic team will help you prioritize your bone and joint health and optimize your mobility. Click here to learn more about Palomar Health.

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