What Doctor Should You See?

Updated: Oct 3, 2019


You’re at work and your colleague is bent over in pain. You get to talking and they say, “I hurt my back this weekend and I know you’ve been seeing someone for your back pain. Do you have a recommendation of who I should see?” As you start going through the list of doctors you’ve seen in your head, you start thinking of your friend, Joe, who also hurt his back recently and went to see a doctor. Now, who do you recommend for your colleague to see?

Working in a physical therapy office, our patients ask us on a regular basis who we recommend for them to see. There are so many options for them! From orthopedic surgeons, to their family doctor, help isn’t far away. But what are the differences between the different doctors out there?

Let’s take a look at some of the most common doctors we refer our physical therapy patients who are suffering from pain or a trauma, need surgery, or just simply need answers to their symptoms.

Pain Management

If you are suffering from pain of any degree, you may benefit from the help and guidance of a pain management specialist. Pain management doctors are physicians who evaluate, diagnose, and treat varying levels of pain associated with different disorders, surgeries, and traumas. For example, pain management specialists can help someone suffering from pain associated with cancer treatment and help his next patient who is suffering from nerve damage.

When working with a pain management physician, your course of treatment to overcome your pain could include the use of medications, injections, diagnostic testing, physical therapy, and nerve blocks or any combination of these. If they believe you could benefit from the help of a specialist, they may also refer you out.

Orthopedic Surgeon

Many people will do whatever it takes to avoid surgery for as long as possible but know that the surgery is going to have to happen at some point. If you’ve tried physical therapy, sports medicine, and pain management and haven’t seen improvement, it’s time to consult with an orthopedic surgeon about your surgical options.

However, it is important to know that orthopedic surgeons treat more than just joint or bone issues; they treat anything having to do with the musculoskeletal system which includes the bones, joint, and nerves. Orthopedic surgeons can specialize in a number of different areas including: arthritis, rheumatology, joint replacement, hand surgery, bone tumors, foot & ankle surgery, etc. Just because their title includes "surgeon," doesn't mean they always do surgery!

Some other reasons to see an orthopedic surgeon include: swelling at the joints, a decrease in range of motion, pain in the muscles or tendons, or difficulty completing your everyday tasks.

Podiatrist (DPM)

If you are experiencing a problem with your foot or lower limb, you may want to seek the attention of a podiatrist, sometimes referred to as a DPM or doctor of podiatric medicine. Podiatrists go through four years of medical school followed by a 3-year residency. At the completion of their exams, they are certified by the American Board of Podiatric Medicine.

Similar to a family doctor, podiatrists treat people of all ages. Some podiatrists specialize in treating specific conditions such as diabetes or surgery, while others treat more common foot problems like bunions, blisters, warts, sprains, or heel pain.

Family Doctor or Primary Care Physician

Your family doctor, otherwise referred to as a primary care physician, or general practitioner are a great resource for most things! Family doctors see a wide variety of patients from toddlers to elderly patients in their 90’s. Many people are surprised to discover that they can treat more than just the common cold, but heart disease, arthritis, and they can even guide you through your pregnancy. If you are suffering from something they are not comfortable treating, they can refer you to the appropriate specialist, but can give you a general idea of what they believe is going on.

One of the best things about a family doctor? They are with you for a long period of time (give that you stick with them or don’t move away)! They know not only your personal medical history, but those within your family. Based on the information you give them, they can be on the lookout for potential red flags.

Pediatrician

Pediatricians are your go-to doctor for most anything related to your kids. When pregnant, most parents already start the search for the pediatrician they want to oversee the care of their baby for years to come. Although your family doctor can suffice, a pediatrician actually specializes in the care of children. After graduating from medical school, they go through a 3-year residency program in pediatrics.

Pediatricians are able to do more than just a “wellness exam” or give vaccinations. They manage the physical, mental, and behavioral health of your child. If they believe you would benefit from seeing a specialist, they can recommend someone they trust.

Sports Medicine

A doctor that specializes in sports medicine can see a wide range of patients, but tend to focus on helping athletic individuals who do not require surgery. Sports medicine doctors train in musculoskeletal conditions. Their goal is to help you get back to your active lifestyle by improving your movement and function and preventing future injuries.

If you suffer from things like sprains, shin splints, fractures, plantar fasciitis, or general pain at the joint, you may benefit from seeing a sports medicine doctor. They typically work closely with physical therapists, chiropractors, and athletic trainers. If they cannot help you, they will refer you out to someone who will. *Some orthopedic offices will require you to see their sports medicine doctors before you can see the orthopedic surgeon to see if there are other options of treatment for you besides surgery.*

Neurosurgeon

When it is time to have surgery recommended by a neurologist, you may be directed to a neurosurgeon. Similar to a neurologist, neurosurgeons specialize in diagnosing, treating, and even preventing problems in the central nervous system, brain, peripheral nerves, and muscles.

Some of the common conditions that a neurosurgeon may treat include spinal bifida, scoliosis, tumors, and spinal cords injuries. There is some overlap between orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons as both can perform surgeries to help patients with things like scoliosis or herniated discs.

Neurologist

At the direction of your family care provider, you may be referred to a neurologist who specializes in the treatment of diseases in the brain, central nervous system, peripheral nerves and muscles. This includes things like migraines or headaches, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dizziness, and epilepsy. After completing medical school, neurologists typically go through a 1-year internship and up to 3 years of specialized training in neurology.

When consulting with a neurologist, they will examine things like your vision, speech, coordination and reflexes, sensation, and strength. They may require further diagnostic testing including: blood/urine tests, EEG’s, imaging, or biopsies. It is important to note that a neurologist does not perform surgery! If surgery is the best treatment option for their patient, they will refer them out.

Now, you may notice there is some overlap by a number of these doctors and that’s ok! If you are unsure as to who you should see, maybe see both. It never hurts to get a second opinion, or even a third!

When it comes making the final decision of choosing who you should see, one of the most important factors to consider is who are you most comfortable with?

If you are in the Southern California area and looking for a doctor to see, we would love to help you! Give us a call and schedule an injury assessment so we can properly guide you to the right person.

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