What Are the Differences Between Physiotherapy and Orthopaedic Surgery?

Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

Medically reviewed by Dr. James Tan

Strains, sprains, ligament tears, broken bones, rotator cuff tears and dislocations require proper care to get you feeling better again and reduce your chances of re-injury. Certain injuries will leave you with a choice of treatments. Do you want to undergo orthopaedic surgery or start a physiotherapy programme? While options can be a good thing, choosing between physiotherapy and orthopaedic surgery is no easy task. Each option has its unique benefits and drawbacks.

To help you make this important decision, let’s take a closer look at how exactly physiotherapy and orthopaedic surgery work and how they differ.

When Is Orthopaedic Surgery Essential?

While there are times when physiotherapy is a good choice, there are certain cases where surgery is vital. When you are dealing with a particular type of injury where the area must be stitched together, like with a torn meniscus, physiotherapy is not enough. Likewise, in the case of fractures in the foot or major injury to tissues or muscles, physiotherapy or platelet-rich plasma treatment isn’t effective.

In some cases, orthopaedic surgery is not imperative but highly recommended. It’s true that you may be able to work with a physiotherapist to strengthen the muscles, tendons and tissues that surround your injury. This will certainly help support movement and compensate for the limitations caused by the injury. You may indeed go back to feeling like your old self again, but your chance of re-injury is much higher than if you had opted for surgery. For this reason, surgeons recommend surgery to athletes and other people who are particularly prone to re-injury from sports. You might also want to consider orthopaedic surgery as a treatment for ACL tears.

Physiotherapy vs Orthopaedic Surgery Outcomes

People often look to avoid surgery and it’s easy to see why. The process seems daunting and, sometimes, downright scary. Meanwhile, most surgeons will encourage patients to go for the option that will offer the quickest results, which is surgery. Healthcare professionals know that resolving issues quickly reduces long-term effects like osteoarthritis causing pain in the hips or damage to the meniscus.

Your lifestyle and health goals are a consideration as well. Let’s say you have an anterior cruciate tear. If you have an active lifestyle and do arduous exercises like HITT, bouldering and F45 or even yoga and pilates, orthopaedic surgery is the only real option for maintaining your lifestyle. For less active patients, however, physiotherapy may be enough to get them back to their old way of life.

Each person and injury is unique, however. That is why it’s essential to get a diagnosis and have a full picture of your options. Your specialist will outline the potential paths you have to choose from so you can make an informed decision.

Read more: What Is the Difference Between a Chiropractor and an Orthopaedic Doctor?

Can a Physiotherapist Diagnose Issues?

Many people confuse the difference between a physiotherapist, chiropractor, and an osteopath but they each have different backgrounds and areas of study. Physiotherapists can diagnose musculoskeletal injuries and create treatment plans. Like GPs, they are considered to be first-contact practitioners. That means that patients can see them without a referral for quick diagnosis and treatment. That is one reason why seeing a physiotherapist is always a good idea.

Sometimes, your injury isn’t as minor as you might think. If you’re dealing with chronic or acute pain, contact our physiotherapist. For example, if you are experiencing wrist pains or ankle fractures, you can quickly have your issue diagnosed and get on the path pain relief. They are experts in physiotherapy and will tell you exactly what to expect. After fully assessing your condition, they may refer you to our orthopaedic surgeon, who can then explain the other side of things to you.

What Does a Physiotherapist Do?

The real goal of physiotherapy is to improve the lifestyle of patients. It’s all about decreasing pain, eliminating swelling, and improving strength. Through physiotherapy sessions, you can boost your endurance as you build up your coordination.

While physiotherapy can be an alternative to surgery, it can also work in conjunction with surgery. In Singapore, therapy specialists often work with postoperative patients. In these cases, physiotherapists create custom recovery plans to speed up healing and reduce discomfort.

Physiotherapists can create customised programmes for a wide range of ailments at different severity levels. In particular, rehabilitation and physiotherapy can help with many different problems including:

  • Balance and vertigo rehabilitation
  • Postural training
  • Arthritis management
  • Back and neck rehabilitation
  • Joint pain management
  • Headache management
  • Manual therapy/ McKenzie treatment
  • Spinal stabilisation
  • Muscle and ligament strains and sprains
  • Myofascial release
  • Auto accident injuries
  • Work injuries

Is a Physiotherapist the Same as an Orthopaedic Specialist?

Physiotherapy is a form of treatment aimed at increasing muscle strength and endurance while improving the range of motion. Physiotherapists utilise a blend of massage, cold and heat therapy and customised workouts such as deadlifts or squats. The field is focused on employing the science of movement to restore, increase, and maintain physical strength.

Meanwhile, specialists work to diagnose musculoskeletal system diseases and injuries. They focus on treatment at the preoperative, operative, and postoperative stages. Some surgeons opt to specialise in particular fields like sports medicine, reconstructive surgery or arthroscopy (joint surgery).

Specialists often work in conjunction with physiotherapists. Physiotherapy has its limitations when it comes to more severe problems like ​​extensive joint damage, ligament damage, and meniscus tears. In cases where orthopaedic surgery is necessary, it requires post-operative care which will then bring patients back to the physiotherapists.

What Types of Physiotherapy Are There in Singapore?

While physiotherapy has become a mainstay in the medical community, patients arriving at the physiotherapist for the first time are often unaware of the wide array of treatment types. Every type of physiotherapy is centred around exercise. From there, different practices are integrated depending on your needs. This might include joint mobilisation, massage, taping, traction, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) treatment.

Helpful tip – In Singapore, physiotherapy and physical therapy are discussed as interchangeable ideas, and indeed there are just different names for the same thing.

Like orthopaedic specialists, some physiotherapists work with specific groups of people and injury types. For example, physiotherapy, geriatric, and paediatric are a few of the most common specialisations that you might find across the world of physiotherapy.

At Ray of Health, we offer a range of physiotherapy services to help you recover from injuries like golfer’s elbow and shoulder pain while improving mobility at the same time. Our experienced therapists can provide personalised treatment plans to address your specific needs and help you achieve your recovery goals. We also have knee pain doctors to help relieve pain and discomfort in the knees.

What Is Orthopaedic Physical Therapy?

In a range of hospitals and specialist clinics across Singapore, you’ll find orthopaedic physical therapists. These specialists work with the musculoskeletal system, which includes bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Physical therapy centres around diagnosing and treating issues with muscular and skeletal methods.

Therapists often work with postoperative joints and acute injuries related to sports injuries, arthritis, and amputations such as knee injuries. By developing a programme of strength training and complementary treatments like joint mobilisation, electrical stimulation, and heat and cold therapy, physical therapists can treat a wide array of musculoskeletal conditions.

Orthopaedic physical therapy begins as soon as possible after surgery to quickly and completely restore each patient’s strength and movement. Based on your injury, a physiotherapist develops a targeted exercise programme focusing on weaknesses and deficiencies caused by injuries.

Of course, workout routines are not one-size-fits-all. Planning the right exercises is particularly important when you’re dealing with an injury to your musculoskeletal system. The bespoke health plan created by a physiotherapist restores function to the injured part while reducing pain and complications.

What to Expect During an Appointment: Physical Therapy vs Orthopaedic Specialist

During an appointment with a specialist, your doctor will review your complete medical history. You’ll be asked about your symptoms and the doctor will go over some questions about your daily routine, including your diet and physical activity level.

Once the basics are established, your specialist examines you. This might include a physical exam, X-ray, blood tests, or other examinations. After reviewing the results, your doctor will make recommendations.

Read more: What Are MRIs, X-ray and CT Scans?

These recommendations may include changes to your at-home routine, pain relief medication, surgery, or physical therapy.

When you get started with physical therapy, your physiotherapist will start by giving you a complete physical assessment. Once the exact issue has been pinpointed, your physical therapist will start you on a customised training programme for physiotherapy rehabilitation. 

Orthopaedic Physiotherapy Rehabilitation in Singapore

When it comes to physical therapy, each appointment is different. This highly customised programme will vary from person to person, depending on their needs, and will evolve over time.

A typical session will involve strength training, with a particular focus on the injured area. Likewise, stretching is common, especially if you’re experiencing stiff joints or bone spurs. This stretching might be closed chain or proprioceptive. Closed chain stretching helps to balance the strength of your muscles while proprioceptive stretching helps you develop control over an injured joint. To warm up and cool down your muscles, ice and heat therapy are other common parts of physical therapy. These simple therapies help with swelling and boost blood circulation.

Importantly, you will be given customised exercise recommendations and other tips that you can follow at home so that you can continue making progress each and every day.

Getting Started with Orthopaedic Care in Singapore

Of course, deciding between physiotherapy and orthopaedic surgery isn’t always a straightforward choice. There are many factors to consider, including the severity of your condition, your lifestyle, and your treatment goals. Whether you’re dealing with a sports injury, shoulder pain, or knee arthritis, we’ll work with you to determine an effective treatment plan for your needs.

Whether you need just one check-in with an orthopaedic doctor to get a complete exam or long-term physiotherapy to restore your movements and vitality, it is time to get started. Regardless of your medication history, age or fitness level, no one needs to live with uncontrolled pain such as a shoulder injury or a debilitating lack of movement. With the right care plan, pain relief is just around the corner.

To get started, you can book an appointment online with us for orthopaedic treatment in Singapore and ask for Dr James Tan.

If you’d like to find us directly, visit one of our clinics below:

Camden Medical

1 Orchard Boulevard, #09-06

Singapore 248649

Mount Alvernia Hospital

820 Thomson Road

Medical Centre D #05-60

Singapore 574623

Check out our other articles:

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About The Author

dr james tan

Dr James Tan Chung Hui

Dr James Tan is a skilled orthopaedic surgeon at Quantum Orthopaedics who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine in Singapore. Apart from partnering with the industry to introduce various treatment techniques, Dr Tan has treated athletes from the Singapore National Teams and professional footballers from the Singapore Premier League and the Young Lions.

Dr Tan specialises in treating sports injuries of the knee, shoulder and elbow joints, as well as cartilage and meniscus surgery. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.

Qualifications and Achievements
MBBS - National University of Singapore (NUS), Faculty of Medicine
Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (MRCS)
MMed - Master of Medicine in Orthopaedic Surgery (NUS)
Fellow of Royal College of Surgeons (Edinburgh)
Adjunct Assistant Professor | NUS, LKC
Senior Consultant Orthopaedic Surgery, Sports and Exercise Medicine
Head of Department | Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Centre
Principal Investigator of Tissue Engineering
National Medical Research Council grants
Collaboration with Scientists at NTU, TUM, A*Star, Osteopore & Trendlines Medical Singapore


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