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What is Orthopedic Nursing?

Orthopedic Nursing at a Glance
Everyone suffers from some sort of musculoskeletal injury at some point, and the healing process is often long and somewhat painful. While orthopedic physicians may prescribe a therapy regimen or painkillers, orthopedic patients may need additional help with improving the quality of life and managing day-to-day tasks with minimal pain.

Orthopedic Nurse

This is where orthopedic nurses come in. These people dedicate their nursing careers to improving the lives of those suffering from both acute injuries and chronic conditions involving the musculoskeletal system. Orthopedic nurses need to have a grasp of the orthopedic specialty so they can better understand patient needs.


Nursing is an ancient profession, but orthopedic nursing dates back to Victorian England. The field’s founder, Dame Agnes Hunt, was a nurse who found herself chronically suffering from septic arthritis in her hip. Because Hunt understood the trials of living with constant musculoskeletal pain, she decided to spend her career trying to improve the lives of both soldiers who had been injured and children who had been crippled or otherwise affected by orthopedic conditions. Today, the field has expanded to include a variety of subspecialties and practice settings.

Required Education

As is the case with all nursing professions, orthopedic nurses must pass their Boards for either the RN or LPN/LVN degree. This is a minimum requirement, however, and many orthopedic nurses choose to become certified in their specialty. The Orthopedic Nursing Certification Board offers the main certification exam taken to illustrate a nurse’s competency in the field. This credential is called Orthopedic Nurse Certified, and it is the only one offered to illustrate proficiency in the field.

There are also options available for those who want to enter a subspecialty within the field. Two advanced nursing certifications are available: that of Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner (ONP-C) and Orthopedic Clinical Nurse Specialist (OCNS-C). For many, the optimal career path involves working as an OCN and then moving to one or both of the advanced certifications.

Typical Job Responsibilities

Because there are so many settings where orthopedic nurses work, job responsibilities can vary greatly. While many orthopedic nurses work on staff at a hospital or other practice, some may choose to work in management, whether that management is of nursing staff or of an entire practice.

Others may opt to work relatively independently as nurse practitioners or as nursing educators in order to further the field. Alternatively, some nurses prefer research over clinical work and work full-time as medical researchers.

Work Settings

This is a specialty that can involve any number of work settings. Because there are patients with orthopedic issues in all phases of life – everyone from newborns to the elderly can suffer – these nurses are needed in a variety of settings. In addition, musculoskeletal problems range from acute, life-threatening injuries to the long-term pain in need of management.

As mentioned earlier, work responsibilities in this field can vary greatly depending on what an orthopedic nurse chooses as his or her specialty. On the acute-injury end of the spectrum, nurses are needed in ERs, trauma units, and operating rooms, where they can assist physicians and also remain attuned to the pain-management needs of the patient.

Because several types of cancer can adversely affect bone health and musculoskeletal comfort, these nurses also can be found in oncology departments. Nurses who deal with orthopedic issues on a less acute scale work in gerontology and rehabilitation units, and they may even work for home health agencies. In this capacity, an orthopedic nurse is dispatched to the home of a client, where he or she provides medical care and helps to monitor and alleviate orthopedic pain.

For those who want to work as educators, working at a college or university teaching nursing may be an option. Some nurses who choose this path opt to get additional graduate degrees, and many work clinically before beginning work as an educator.

Association Membership

Though membership in a professional society is not necessarily required, many orthopedic nurses will opt to join the National Association of Orthopedic Nurses, or NAON. Members of this association are better equipped to stay up-to-date with the latest trends in the field. They also receive the NAON journal.

In addition, the NAON has several committees and task forces designed to help advance the field as well as help individual nurses to succeed. The NAON Early Career Nurse Committee exists so that nurses who have just begun work in the field can be assured that their voices are heard in the national orthopedic nursing conversation. In addition, it also provides resources, including mentorships, to encourage and support those new to the field.

The NAON Education Committee is comprised of 10 members who design educational courses, textbooks, and tools. These committee members have two- to three-year tenure, and most NAON members are eligible to apply. Research committees exist to help offer a guiding focus in the medical research done by the community and its members.

Other committees include leadership search and local affairs committees – these ensure the organization operates smoothly at every level.

The orthopedic nursing field is filled with individuals with a commitment to science and to helping others through difficult times. The best nurses are able to keep a levelheaded, scientific focus while still managing to be attuned to patient needs. A balance of technical skill and personal compassion will serve any potential orthopedic nurse well.

Whether someone wants to work part-time in a clinical setting or devote his or her life to the field of orthopedic nursing, he or she will be entering into a field that is vital for the health, comfort, and safety of millions.


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Find Your Degree is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.