Orthopedic nurse helping a patient with his posture

Orthopedic nurses train to treat patients with musculoskeletal disorders, which often drastically affect their mobility. These nurses help patients with both acute and chronic conditions with therapeutic care, take vitals, administer medications, and assist an orthopedist, also known as an orthopedic surgeon.

As an orthopedic nurse, you would work with patients with orthopedic conditions across their lifespans. These patients may include seniors with arthritis, children with conditions like scoliosis, and adults suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, knee pain, sports injuries, and other musculoskeletal problems.

Orthopedic nurses may work in private practices, surgical centers, injury rehabilitation facilities, or in a hospital as orthopedic surgical, ICU, or ambulatory nurses. With a specialty in orthopedics, you can customize your nursing career to suit your passions and preferences. 

If you’re interested in becoming an orthopedic nurse, here’s how to get started. 

Read more: What Is An Orthopedic Nurse?

Steps to becoming an orthopedic nurse

Orthopedics is a dynamic and diverse medical field. You have options to specialize your practice even further in areas like pediatrics, gerontology, or operative nursing. Orthopedic nurses who work in private practices or rehabs can work one-on-one with patients daily, giving them assistance, therapeutic services, and care they need to improve their function and live their lives. 

Here’s our 5-step orthopedic nurse career path to help you build your future dream job.

1. Earn an ADN or BSN nursing degree

Every orthopedic nurse has first to become a registered nurse. All RNs need a broader education because specialties only build upon what nurses already need to know. With an RN, you’ll be qualified to tend to patients of all ages in settings ranging from major hospitals to home care. 

You can earn an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). The choice is yours; both make you eligible to specialize in orthopedics later. The main difference between an ADN vs. BSN is the length of the program. 

An associate’s degree is a 2-year degree that introduces nursing students to the core concepts and competencies of their field; a BSN lasts 4-years (3-years on an accelerated path) and expands upon the foundations of the ADN program with advanced nursing coursework.

Both ADNs and BSNs are valuable degrees, but you might find that you'll need at least a bachelor's degree to qualify for promotions or even earn certain certifications later. For this reason, many nursing students today opt for the BSN program.

Another benefit of the BSN is two additional years of clinical experience. Most nursing students start clinical rounds in the second semester of their first year. Throughout a bachelor’s degree, they’ll treat dozens of patients and graduate with the confidence and comfort they need to work independently as an RN.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN exam

The NCLEX-RN is a nationally certifying exam for anyone who wants a nursing license in the US or Canada. The National Council Licensure Examination is 175 questions, which nurse graduates answer until an adaptive computer system determines whether they pass or fail.

Passing the NCLEX-RN requires some studying, even if you got great grades and performance reviews in nursing school. The exam spans four nursing areas:

  1. Providing a safe and effective care environment

  2. Health promotion and maintenance

  3. Psychosocial integrity

  4. Physiological integrity 

You can take NCLEX practice tests and read up on study guides to ensure you’re prepared for test day. Check out the official NCLEX website for more information.

3. Apply for your first nursing job

Many orthopedic positions will consider new grads, so you should start looking for them as you enter the workforce. Gaining experience in real orthopedic nursing will help you develop the clinical skill set and knowledge you need to truly specialize in this branch of medicine.

It will also prepare you to pass the ONC certification exam, which is the leading certification for orthopedic nurses. 

4. Earn the orthopedic nurse certified (ONC) credential

You can earn your ONC through the Orthopedic Nurses Certification Board (ONCB). This credential showcases your commitment to working in orthopedics and your extensive clinical experience caring for orthopedic patients. 

To take the ONC nurse exam, you must:

  • Have a valid, unrestricted RN license

  • Have two full years’ experience practicing as an RN

  • Have at least 1,000 hours of direct orthopedic patient care in the last three years

The ONC welcomes applicants with a broad range of experiences in orthopedics, including administrative work, home health care, emergency room nursing, long-term care, home health care, operating room nursing, and pediatrics, to name a few. 

If you’ve been developing your sub-specialty in orthopedics, you can rest assured that your clinical experience in a certain area will likely count toward your ONC credential. 

5. Apply for orthopedic nurse jobs

You may stay at your current job after earning your certification, or you could decide to start looking for greater job opportunities. As a certified orthopedic nurse, there are many areas of healthcare that need your skill and expertise. 

Suppose you enjoy building relationships with regular patients and being a part of their long-term progress. In that case, you might consider working in a nursing home, home health care, or rehabilitation clinic.

In an orthopedist’s office, you’ll work with many pre- and post-op patients undergoing surgical procedures to treat and manage their musculoskeletal disorders. 

If a fast-paced environment suits you better, you can look for jobs in ambulatory centers, hospital emergency rooms, or operating rooms. There is no limit to where you can put your orthopedic skills to good use!

Can you become an orthopedic nurse online?

You can certainly start your nursing degree online, but you’ll have to complete clinicals in person. Some schools also require students to attend in-person lab simulations and skills demonstrations to get hands-on guidance from a nurse educator. 

Online nursing degrees are a great way for you to work while becoming a nurse, but they aren’t entirely online. They’re useful if you want to skip sitting in a classroom for lectures, especially if you’re already balancing other responsibilities. 

You’ll have to attend any necessary labs and have plenty of time available during the week for clinicals. Typical nursing school clinicals are 120 to 140 hours per semester, which can be multiple eight or 12-hour shifts per week.

What is the difference between an orthopedic nurse and a registered nurse?

Orthopedic and registered nurses are the same, but orthopedic nurses specialize in treating orthopedic patients. These patients have diseases or injuries that affect their bones, joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Patients can include children with genetic conditions or disabilities, adults with chronic conditions, or people of all ages recovering from injuries like torn ligaments and broken bones, sprains, and fractures. 

Orthopedic nurses may work in hospitals or doctor’s offices. They assist the physician with daily activities, whether preparing patients for surgical procedures, placing them in traction, or helping them with casting or mobility exercises. 

What can you progress to from being an orthopedic nurse?

A registered orthopedic nurse has three potential career paths:

  • Become an orthopedic nurse case manager

  • Become an orthopedic nurse practitioner

  • Become an orthopedic doctor

Orthopedic nurse case managers are RNs who work to manage and coordinate their patients’ care; they help them connect with the right services and resources, educate them, and coordinate with doctors and insurance companies. You can become a nurse case manager if you are an RN with at least 2 to 3 years of experience. 

If you want to start treating patients independently, including assessing, diagnosing, and writing care plans, you can become an orthopedic nurse practitioner. Orthopedic nurse practitioners have a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) and certification as an ONP-C through the Orthopedic Nurses Credentialing Board.

Finally, you could attend medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon for the highest medical achievement. After college, it takes approximately nine years for orthopedic surgeons to complete their residency training.

Do orthopedic nurse qualifications expire?

You will have to renew your ONC certification every five years by retaking the exam or taking continuing education courses. If you’re an RN, you’ll also have to renew your credential every few years. Most states require RNs to renew their license every 3 to 4 years. 

How much do orthopedic nurses make?

According to the latest data from ZipRecruiter, the national average salary for an orthopedic nurse is $99,550 a year, or $48 an hour. Most orthopedic nurses earn between $75,000 to $121,500 a year. 

Nursing salaries can vary based on education, experience, and location.

Click here to read more on our guide to nursing salaries.

How long does it take to become an orthopedic nurse?

Orthopedic nurses will spend at least 4 or 5 years earning their degrees and becoming certified. If you want to become an orthopedic nurse practitioner, it will take at least 6 to 8 years. 

Read more: How long does it take to become a nurse?

FAQs about becoming an orthopedic nurse

What are orthopedic nurses called?

Orthopedic nurses are RNs, and those with certification are ONCs (Orthopedic Nurse Certified). Orthopedic nurse practitioners, or ONPs, are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) with specialized education and skills training in orthopedics.

Why should I be an orthopedic nurse?

Working in orthopedics is a rewarding career that lets you make a visible difference in your patients’ lives. Living with chronic pain or disabilities can present a wide range of challenges that you help them overcome. 

You can help people suffering from trauma or those who have been living in pain for a long time. Your care and compassion help make their lives easier, and you can be a part of their support system as they heal and recover. 

For patients with progressive diseases or chronic conditions, orthopedic nurses offer ongoing care that makes their symptoms more manageable and less painful.

What skills does an orthopedic nurse need?

Orthopedic nurses draw from various clinical nursing skills, including assessment, patient care, pre and post-op, surgical skills, spinal care, trauma, and emergency care. It will all depend on where you work and the type of patients you treat.

Where do orthopedic nurses work?

An orthopedic nurse can work with trauma patients or patients with ongoing conditions. They can also work in home care and treat patients recovering from injuries or managing their daily lives with chronic musculoskeletal disease.