The Right Doctor for Your Ankle or Foot Problems. Podiatrist or Surgeon?

The Right Doctor for Your Ankle or Foot Problems. Podiatrist or Surgeon?

Relieving foot and ankle pain can happen through finding the right podiatrist or orthopedic surgeon. What are the main differences between an orthopedic surgeon and a podiatrist and how do you chose the correct doctor to solve your pain?

The average human walks between 70,000 and 100,000 miles during their life. All of that walking, combined with other physical activities like running or standing all day for work or other reasons, puts intense strain on the ankles and feet that can cause damage over time as well. People also experience lower extremity injuries from accidents.

Whatever your situation, you need to know who to seek out for appropriate care and medical treatment. This guide breaks down the differences between the two most common types of doctors, podiatrists and orthopedic surgeons, that people reach out to for help:


Although some podiatric doctors perform surgeries, the majority of them handle everyday common lower leg, ankle and foot ailments. These cases might involve arthritis, bone breaks, sprains, childhood growing pains, diabetes, nerve damage, heel spurs, arch support problems, bunions, hammertoes, nail and skin infections, and split or ingrown toenails. They often take a conservative, non-surgical approach to treatment whenever possible. That said, some podiatrists also possess a surgical background and perform basic and reconstructive surgeries.

Podiatrists receive their training at a school of podiatry for approximately four years after completing four years at an accredited undergraduate school. They then spend between two and four years honing their skills as a resident doctor.

Orthopedic Surgeons

Surgeons that handle a wide range of musculoskeletal problems are known as orthopedic surgeons. They treat many of the same conditions as podiatrists, but they bring to the patient a broader understanding of how the entire body can adversely impact the lower legs, ankles and feet. They also commonly deal with more complex patients who haven’t been able to find relief via a podiatrist or other doctor. Many podiatrists who don’t have a surgical background refer their patients to orthopedic surgeons when non-surgical methods of treatment fail to work.

These surgeons must also complete four years of undergraduate school followed by four years of medical training, but they receive their education at a medical school. Unlike podiatrists, they must complete five-to-six years of hands-on training as residents. If they decide to specialize in ankle and foot conditions, they must also on-the-job shadow an experienced orthopedic surgeon who specializes in ankle and foot treatments for at least a year.

Similarities and Differences

Both podiatrists and orthopedic surgeons are doctors. Podiatrists are referred to as Doctors of Podiatric Medicine (DPMs). Orthopedic surgeons are medical doctors (MDs) or Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs). As already pointed out, both types of doctors can treat similar ailments. Yet, they differ in two key ways:

  1. Orthopedic surgeons don’t always specialize in lower extremity problems, which means that a patient must ascertain a surgeon’s experience with ankle and foot conditions before seeking surgical treatment. Otherwise, they might waste time and money trying to get help from a surgeon who has little experience with ankles or feet and potentially for a health problem that doesn’t even require surgery.
  1. Since orthopedic surgeons study the entire body’s musculoskeletal system, a patient might also see an orthopedic surgeon and learn over the course of evaluation that they have another musculoskeletal problem that’s causing their ankle or foot problem. Since podiatrists focus primarily on the lower extremities, a patient might conversely see a podiatrist who disregards any possible causes for their ailment that exist beyond the lower extremities.

Finding the Right Doctor

Healthcare professionals typically recommend that patients follow a certain set of steps when they experience ankle and foot problems. Before they schedule an appointment with a podiatrist or orthopedic surgeon for evaluation, a patient should see their family doctor or an urgent care or emergency room doctor. One of these doctors or their healthcare insurance provider can refer them to a trusted local specialist depending on the complexity of the case.

Whether a patient receives a referral or not, they should always research the doctor before the appointment. They should check out the doctor’s online biography and read any reviews about them. Keep in mind that it’s important to check reviews on multiple websites since certain sites, such as hospital ones, often give preference to favorable reviews instead of displaying an accurate cross-section of reviews.

Treatment Cost Differences

Orthopedic surgeons typically charge more per appointment and treatment than podiatrists, which makes sense given that they invested in additional education and deal primarily with costly surgical treatments. That said, visits to a podiatrist might cost more over time given that they often provide long-term evaluation and treatment services.

What does this mean for patients? Although the cost of treatment depends primarily on a patient’s insurance deductible and coverage and the complexity of their case, they can expect to pay more in the short-term for consultations with an orthopedic surgeon and for services related to surgical treatment. They might not pay as much for each visit to see a podiatrist or for conservative, non-surgical treatments, but they can expect to put out more money if they see the podiatrist regularly for years.

Exceptions to the above also exist. Obviously, again dependent on various factors, a patient might pay more when seeing a podiatrist if they need to have expensive MRIs or other scans of their ankles or feet. They might also pay a lot of money for medical equipment designed to help improve their condition, such as custom shoe insoles to offset leg length or feet arch problems.


As it’s now easy to see, podiatrists and orthopedic surgeons both possess the qualifications needed to treat lower extremity conditions. The decision about which doctor to pick depends on the patient’s unique situation and many other factors.

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