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from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Diseases & Conditions



Staying Healthy

What Is a Hand Surgeon?

Our hands serve many purposes. Hands help us eat, dress, write, earn a living, play sports, create art, and do many other activities.

To function, our hands require sensation, strength, and motion. When a hand is injured or otherwise dysfunctional, care must be given to all the different types of tissues that make function of the hand possible.

Hand examination

This drawing was made from a photograph taken in 1946 of two founding members of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Sterling Bunnell, MD, and J. William Littler, MD, are examining the hand of a patient.

Hand surgeons are orthopaedic, plastic, or general surgeons who dedicate a substantial portion of their practice to treatment of the hand and upper extremity. Many hand surgeons treat conditions of the fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, and elbows. 

What special training do hand surgeons receive?

Hand surgery is a dedicated subspecialty for orthopaedic, plastic, and general surgeons. This means that true hand surgeons:

  • Complete at least 1 full year of specialized training in hand surgery after their initial 5- to 7-year residency.
  • Dedicate a substantial portion of their practice to conditions of the hand and upper extremity (often, at least 70%).
  • Receive certification in surgery of the hand through their appropriate medical board. In the case of orthopaedic surgeons, the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery (ABOS) certifies hand surgeons. According to ABOS, "The Subspecialty Certificate in Orthopaedic Surgery of the Hand is for board-certified orthopaedic surgeons who have demonstrated qualifications in hand surgery beyond those expected of other orthopaedic surgeons by virtue of additional training and a practice characterized by volume and diversity of cases in hand surgery, or have made significant contributions in this field." 

What do hand surgeons do?

Hand surgery is the field of medicine that deals with problems of the hand, wrist, and forearm. Hand surgeons care for these problems with and without surgery. They are specially trained to operate when necessary. Many hand surgeons are also experts in diagnosing and caring for conditions of the elbow.

Some hand surgeons treat only children, some treat only adults, and some treat both.

Common conditions that may be treated by hand surgeons include, but are not limited to:

In addition, hand surgeons who also treat elbows may treat issues like:

Hand surgeons who specialize in the treatment of children may also treat congenital hand differences.

Hand surgeons treat both surgical and nonsurgical conditions. They typically divide their time between:

  • The operating room, performing procedures to address conditions that require surgery.
  • The office/clinic, treating non-operative conditions, preparing patients for surgery, and seeing patients for follow-up after surgery.

Hand surgeons in academic medical centers also train medical students, residents, and fellows. They may also participate in research projects, write manuscripts, and teach at conferences. 

Why visit a hand surgeon?

If you have pain in your fingers, hand, wrist, elbow, or arm, or have other upper-extremity related concerns (see list above), you may want to consult a hand surgeon. Because many hand surgeons devote most of their time to examining, treating, and studying the hand, they are specialists in hand care.

What to expect at your visit with a hand surgeon

Depending on your condition, most hand surgery visits will include the following:

  • The surgeon will ask questions to get a history of your condition so they can better understand your symptoms.
  • This will typically be followed by a physical exam with a focus on the area of your upper extremity that is troubling you.
  • The surgeon may obtain X-rays at the time of your visit to look at the bones in your hand/wrist.
  • If further information is needed to make a diagnosis or plan treatment, the surgeon may order nerve studies, computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, ultrasounds, or other diagnostic tests.

Hand surgeons often recommend nonsurgical treatment options, including:

  • Hand therapy, a combination of physical and occupational therapy designed to restore movement and reduce or eliminate pain.
  • Injections. Many hand/wrist conditions respond to steroid injections, which can be performed in the office.
  • Medication. Some conditions might respond to prescription or over-the-counter medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

For patients with surgical conditions or conditions that do not improve after nonsurgical treatment, surgery may be recommended. Depending on the condition, surgery may be urgent (e.g., fractures or infections) or elective (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis), which will affect the timing of surgery.

Last Reviewed

June 2022

Contributed and/or Updated by

Tyler Steven Pidgeon, MD, FAAOS

Peer-Reviewed by

Thomas Ward Throckmorton, MD, FAAOS

AAOS does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products, or physicians referenced herein. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, or locate one in your area through the AAOS Find an Orthopaedist program on this website.