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What Is a Podiatrist?: Everything You Need to Know

Written by 
Lacey Ramburger
Reviewed by 
Emanuel Singleton, NP

Article at a glance

  • Podiatrists are doctors who treat medical conditions related to the feet, ankles, and lower legs.

  • Podiatrists can help treat issues such as growth, injuries, foot and ankle pain, among others.

  • You may need to see a podiatrist if you have specific injuries or conditions related to your feet, ankles, and lower leg limbs that can’t be remedied by your primary physician or health provider. 

What Does a Podiatrist Do?

According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, a podiatrist is defined as a doctor of podiatric medicine (DPM), a physician and surgeon who treats the foot, ankle, and related structures of the leg.” They most often treat foot and ankle problems along with conditions and complications that arise from those areas. They can diagnose a foot or ankle problem, write prescriptions, recommend physical therapy techniques, and perform foot and ankle surgery.

Types of Podiatrists

Those who practice podiatric medicine may opt to focus their practice on specific areas. These areas can include sports medicine, pediatrics, radiology, or even diabetes.

Sports Medicine

Some podiatrists choose to focus exclusively on podiatric sports medicine, where they help treat foot and ankle injuries from people who play sports or may have become injured in other vigorous physical activity. 


Podiatrists may opt to focus on younger patients and choose pediatric care for their practice. These podiatrists may be recommended by a primary care physician if a child has consistent complaints or concerns regarding their feet, ankles, or legs. Some examples of issues a pediatric podiatrist may treat include:

  • Ingrown toenails

  • Flat feet

  • Athlete’s foot

  • Bunions

  • Intoed gait


Podiatric radiologists focus on using imagery and scans to help diagnose conditions. They may use options such as X‑rays, ultrasounds, CT scans, and MRI exams to help pinpoint and diagnose conditions involving the feet, ankles, or lower legs.

Diabetic Foot Care

Some podiatrists may choose to use their expertise with those diagnosed with diabetes. Diabetes can have effects on the whole body, and the feet are no exception. Podiatrists with a focus on diabetic foot care can help someone with diabetes remain healthy and limit the possible health issues that the condition can cause to feet, including amputation.

Podiatrist vs. Orthopedic Surgeon: What’s The Difference?

Podiatrists aren’t the only health professionals who can treat foot and ankle problems. Other options such as primary care physicians (PCPs), physical therapists, and orthopedic surgeons may also potentially be able to treat conditions. However, there are differences that should be taken into account, particularly between podiatrists and orthopedic surgeons. 

Podiatrists are medical professionals specifically focused on treating issues or conditions related to the feet, ankles, and lower leg. These areas of the body are their focus and they have been specifically trained and certified solely in these specific parts of the body. 

Orthopedic surgeons, on the other hand, are medical professionals who focus on the entire musculoskeletal system. They can treat foot and ankle issues, but it isn’t the only part of the body they are trained in. While receiving their degree, some orthopedic surgeons may choose a residency training focused on feet and ankles, but it isn’t required of a general orthopedic surgeon.

Training and Certification

Those who practice podiatric medicine are doctors and trained health professionals. However, their education process does differ somewhat from other physicians.


In terms of podiatric medical education, there are a few steps those seeking a degree in podiatry must follow.

  • Instead of a standard medical school, they take a 4‑year program at a podiatric medical school.

  • After graduating, they must undergo residency training that aligns with the requirements of the state they choose to practice in.

  • Two types of residency training must be completed—podiatric medicine and surgery. A minimum of 2 years of residency training (including surgical training) must be completed.


If a podiatrist wants to become licensed, they must graduate from an accredited, board-certified school of podiatric medicine as well as pass the National Board Exams.

Additionally, they can become certified in specialty areas, such as:

  • Orthopedics

  • Primary care

  • Surgery

What Conditions Does a Podiatrist Treat?

A podiatric physician can treat a variety of conditions, including:

  • Foot and ankle disorders

  • Foot pain

  • Heel spurs

  • Heel pain

  • Nail disorders or nail diseases, such as ingrown toenails

  • Plantar fasciitis

  • Preventive foot care

  • Foot surgery

  • Ankle surgery

  • Foot problems

Reasons To See a Podiatrist

Our feet play a vital role in shock absorption and stabilization and are complex structures that deserve specific care. There are multiple reasons why a person may need to see a podiatrist, such as:

  • Foot problems or pain: whether through a specific physical injury or unusual discomfort, foot pain can be caused by many factors, which a podiatrist can help determine.

  • Toenail issues: some common issues such as ingrown toenails should be addressed to help alleviate pain. However, other issues such as nail discoloration, chipped or cracked nails, or overly thick nails may be a symptom of something more.

  • Growths: feet may be subject to growth, such as warts or bunions, which a podiatrist can help to treat or remove.

  • Ankle or lower leg pain: podiatrists are also trained to help navigate issues with ankles and lower leg issues, and can prescribe treatment or even operate surgically if required.

  • Recommendations from a PCP: while some foot and ankle issues may be treated by your PCP, they may also refer you to a podiatrist, notably if you require podiatric surgery.

What To Expect

If you’ve never had a podiatry appointment before, there are a few things you can expect during your first visit, such as:

  1. Initial exam: Like any other doctor’s appointment, you’ll undergo a basic examination. This could include having you walk around or stand up, as well as other diagnostic tests that are appropriate.

  2. Medical history: when meeting with a podiatrist for the first time, they will ask about your medical history, including any consistent issues or surgeries you’ve had. They will ask about conditions that affect your overall health, such as diabetes, that could contribute to any foot-related issues.

  3. Physical exam: after a better understanding of your medical history, the podiatrist will want to perform a more thorough physical examination. This will likely include checking for abnormalities such as growths as well as the color and texture of your nail beds. They may also ask you to perform some tasks, such as walking around, to gauge the way your feet and ankles are functioning.

  4. Diagnosing/​Treatment: During this visit, the podiatrist may come to a diagnosis and administer a treatment plan, which could include medication and topical ointments, physical therapy, lifestyle changes, and orthotics (devices that support and comfort your feet, such as shoe inserts). If they don’t fully have a diagnosis, they may opt to run additional tests to help them come to a clearer conclusion before moving forward with a treatment plan.


Are podiatrists doctors?

Yes, podiatrists are doctors specializing in conditions related to the feet, ankles, and lower leg. They undergo medical and surgical training.

What are the most common reasons a person sees a podiatrist?

Issues such as bunions, ingrown toenails, athlete's foot, and heel pain are all common reasons a person may visit a podiatrist.

Do podiatrists look at toenails?

Yes, podiatrists look at toenails and can help with the healing and treatment of nail bed-related issues.

What's the difference between an orthopedic surgeon and a podiatrist?

An orthopedic surgeon specializes in issues related to the musculoskeletal systems (bones, joints, muscles, etc.) whereas podiatrists focus solely on the feet, ankles, and lower leg areas. Some orthopedic surgeons may focus on feet and ankles as well by taking residency training in those areas, however, they are qualified to treat whole-body issues.

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