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Orthopedic Care vs. Sports Medicine: the Differences

If you have pain or suffer from an injury related to your muscles, bones, or joints, and you come to Stevens Point Orthopedics, you may be referred to one of two types of specialists: an orthopedist or a sports-medicine professional.

While both are dedicated to keeping you healthy and pain-free, maximizing your athletic performance, or living your best life, they’re not one and the same.

For instance, at SPO, our orthopedists – and two sports-medicine-certified orthopedic surgeons – reside at our main Vincent Street facility, while the rest of our sports-medicine specialists are at the Wisconsin Performance Institute on E M Copps Drive.

The differences go beyond location, though. To help you understand what each type of professional does and why you might be referred to them, let’s look at the primary differences between orthopedic care and sports medicine.

Focus and Specialization

The textbook definition of orthopedics states that it’s concerned with the diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation, and prevention of disorders, injuries, and diseases of the musculoskeletal system. This system comprises bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves.

Orthopedic surgeons can perform surgeries to address traumas, congenital disorders, and infections, in addition to performing joint replacements and dealing with conditions like carpal tunnel.

Sports medicine’s primary focus is on the treatment and prevention of injuries resulting from sports and exercise.

This can range from sprained ankles to overuse injuries to torn ACLs, and includes not only treatment but also training, nutrition, and conditioning advice specifically tailored to athletes.

However, these areas are not exclusive. For instance, with a torn ACL, one of SPO’s orthopedic surgeons trained in sports medicine may perform the surgery and then turn over the patient to WPI’s sports-medicine team for rehab.

Is it orthopedics or sports medicine? Ultimately, it’s both – and it’s great care, plain and simple.

Patient Demographics

Orthopedic doctors see a wide variety of patients, ranging from pediatric cases to elderly individuals with arthritis or osteoporosis. They handle conditions resulting from all types of life events – traumatic injuries, degenerative diseases, and even tumors.

On the other hand, sports-medicine practitioners treat people leading an active lifestyle or suffering from a sports-related injury – anyone from professional athletes to weekend joggers or gardeners.

That sounds pretty clear-cut, but Achilles-tendon tears aren’t restricted to Aaron Rodgers types. For many of these cases, patients may have their surgery and perhaps some of their initial rehab done at SPO, but then go to WPI for specialized rehabilitation.

This approach uses the best sports medicine and orthopedics have to offer to create a superior patient experience.


There’s actually quite a bit of overlap between the treatments recommended and supplied by orthopedists and sports-medicine practitioners.

Orthopedic treatments can vary from non-surgical methods such as physical therapy, pain management, bracing, and medications, to surgical interventions like joint replacements.

Meanwhile, the first line of treatment in sports medicine often involves non-surgical approaches like physical therapy, movement analysis, special exercises, and advice on rest and recovery.

Regardless of whether you see a specialist at WPI or SPO, their first goal is to get you back to where you were with a minimum of intervention. They’ll look to non-surgical treatments first before suggesting surgery … and that’s one big thing our orthopedists and sports-medicine specialists have in common.

Training and Qualifications

An orthopedic doctor usually completes four years of undergraduate study, four years of medical school, and then a five-year orthopedic residency program.

Some orthopedists further specialize in areas like hand surgery, knee surgery, joint replacements, or sports medicine – all of which require additional training.

Meanwhile, the sports-medicine specialists at WPI have doctoral-level training in specialized areas like:

  • Kinesiology
  • Manual therapy
  • Muscle activation
  • Movement and mobility training
  • Strength and conditioning
  • Pain neuroscience
  • Performance therapy

WPI’s sports-medicine pros may not have as many years of schooling and residency as an orthopedic surgeon, but they’re highly trained nonetheless.

Scope of Practice

Both orthopedists and sports-medicine practitioners are specialists. However, sports-medicine practitioners are specialized in different ways than their orthopedist colleagues.

Orthopedists might treat everything from trauma surgeries like fixing broken bones to addressing long-term conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.

Sports-medicine specialists emphasize restoring function to injured athletes so they can return to play, ideally at a higher level of performance. They’re also skilled in injury prevention and optimizing athletic performance through things like movement analysis.

It’s impossible to say one is more essential than the other. They’re both important for living a healthy lifestyle, pain-free and at the top of your game.

Whether you’ve experienced a sports-related injury or need a joint replacement or other orthopedic treatment, Stevens Point Orthopedics and the Wisconsin Performance Institute have the specialists you need.

Make an appointment with us today – and get back to the life you love.

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