A Podiatrist (DPM), Medical Doctor (MD), or Orthopedic (DO): Which is Best for Foot and Ankle Care?

Numerous types of healthcare providers can evaluate and treat conditions of the feet. These include podiatrists, orthopedic surgeons, primary care physicians, and physical therapists. However, choosing the best one for your needs is most important.

The difference between podiatrists  and medical Doctors

Podiatrists are far more than simply foot doctors who treat toenail fungus, calluses, and bunions. In fact, your podiatrist is a highly trained foot and ankle surgeon who has received in-depth training to address problems, injuries, and complaints of the lower extremities.

In contrast, a medical doctor, even if they are an orthopedist, has a broader, less focused base of training and education.

Do I need a podiatrist or an orthopedist?

If foot or ankle pain stopping you from living your life to the fullest, or standing up and walking around is leaving you in discomfort, don’t suffer! No matter what, your feet need to function, feel good and perform well. It’s always best to seek the help of a professional who can get you back to feeling great again…but which doctor do you go to?

The answer to this very common question lies in what your specific problem is and what type of treatment would be best for you.

What’s the difference between a podiatrist and an orthopedist?

In simple terms, a podiatrist focuses solely on conditions of the foot and ankle while an orthopedist focuses on the entire musculoskeletal system.

But let’s break down both types of doctors a bit more, and get into the specifics of each specialty.

A podiatrist is a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM). A podiatrist has specialized training to treat disorders of the foot and ankle. Currently, they must complete the following formal education:

  • Four years of undergraduate school
  • Four years at an accredited podiatric medical school
  • Three to four years of only foot and ankle surgical residency training

They receive medical training plus specialized training on the foot, ankle, and lower leg. They are also extremely well trained in biomechanics and proper foot balance and therefore well equipped to fit orthotics, custom shoes, and a variety of braces.

Podiatrists study medicine as it relates to feet, during the entire course of study. They spend their entire surgical residency training on the foot and ankle, often with multiple podiatric and orthopedic surgeons. Therefore, they have more years of study that is focused specifically on feet.

Podiatrists are able to perform surgery and can also prescribe medicine and physical therapy sessions. There are many podiatrists who are also specialists in dermatology, as they often deal with skin conditions around the foot and ankle.

Arthritis, kidney disease and diabetes are just a few of the diseases with symptoms that manifest in the areas around the foot and ankle.


Next, let’s take a more in-depth look at what orthopedists do.

What is an orthopedic surgeon?
An orthopedic surgeon is a medical doctor (MD or DO) who treats the entire musculoskeletal system, not just the lower extremity. Orthopedics is the medical specialty devoted to the diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation, and prevention of injuries and diseases in your musculoskeletal system.

Some foot and ankle problems originate from your knee, hip, or lower back. Foot and ankle orthopedic surgeons are able to effectively treat complex lower extremity conditions in conjunction with the rest of your body. Currently, they must complete the following formal education:

  • Four years of undergraduate school
  • Four years at an accredited medical school
  • Five years of generalized orthopedic surgical residency training

Orthopedic surgeons have a better general medical background, but less time specifically learning about feet. Orthopedists can prescribe medicine and physical therapy as well as perform surgery.

Those who specialize in the foot and ankle are usually able to link conditions in these areas to issues elsewhere in the musculoskeletal system.

What’s the first step to take if you need foot or ankle care?
If your condition is related to the foot and/or ankle it is best to see a podiatrist first.
It’s always best to start where the pain/injury/condition is and then go from there.

When deciding which podiatrist is best for you, make sure that you take the time to review their educational background, their experience, and any patient testimonials you can find online. After all, an informed choice is always the best choice!

Remember, both podiatrists and orthopedic surgeons are qualified to treat foot and ankle conditions, surgically and non-surgically. In general, the best bet is to choose the doctor you feel the most comfortable with, or who has the most experience treating your particular condition.

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