Female patient with a broken arm

How to Become an Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Female patient with a broken arm

Whether it’s due to a sports injury, a workplace accident, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, most people will experience an orthopedic injury at some point in their lives. Before the days of modern medicine, even minor orthopedic injuries could cause lifelong consequences. However, thanks to highly-trained specialists like orthopedic nurse practitioners, most people nowadays can make full recoveries—even from the most severe injuries.

If you’re excited by the idea of helping people recover from injuries so they can return to work, sports, or daily activities, becoming an orthopedic nurse practitioner should be one of the top nursing specialties on your list. Not only will you be a force for good at a challenging time in people’s lives, it’s also a great way to make a living. In fact, we recently featured orthopedic nurse practitioners on our list of the highest-paid nursing jobs in 2021.

This career guide will teach you everything you need to know about becoming an orthopedic nurse practitioner, including the educational requirements, certifications, day-to-day duties, and how long it generally takes to launch your new career.

Not sure if becoming an orthopedic nurse practitioner is the right nursing specialty for you? Click here to see our full list of the 18 highest-paying nursing jobs.

Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner Definition

What Is an Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner?

Orthopedic nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who specialize in assessing and treating injuries and other conditions of the musculoskeletal system. These include injuries to a patient’s bones, joints, muscles, nerves, and other tissues needed for normal, healthy movement. Like other APRNs, orthopedic nurse practitioners have advanced medical training and are authorized to perform certain tasks traditionally reserved for physicians, like prescribing medication and ordering MRIs, X-rays, or other diagnostic tests.

Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner: Job Description

What Does an Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner Do?

Orthopedic nurse practitioners spend most of their time assessing and treating patients for a variety of injuries, including everything from sprained ankles or pulled muscles to more serious issues like broken bones or major ligament injuries. They often prescribe treatment like splints or crutches and educate patients on how to care for their injuries at home. In addition to providing initial assessments and treatment recommendations, orthopedic NPs often follow up with patients to monitor their progress and ensure they’re progressing as planned. Orthopedic nurse practitioners also regularly refer patients to orthopedic surgeons or physical therapists, when an injury requires therapeutic interventions beyond what a patient can accomplish on their own.

Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of orthopedic nurse practitioners include:

  • Assessing patients’ injuries, pain, or other symptoms
  • Treating patients with medical devices like crutches, splints, or immobilizing boots
  • Prescribing and administering medication for pain or inflammation
  • Ordering diagnostic tests like X-rays or MRIs and interpreting their results
  • Educating patients and their caregivers on how to continue care at home
  • Referring patients to surgeons, physical therapists, or other specialists when necessary

Occupational therapist assists child

Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner Skills

To thrive as an orthopedic nurse practitioner, you’ll need excellent analytical skills and attention to detail, as diagnosing orthopedic injuries often requires problem-solving for issues that may not be immediately apparent to the naked eye. Interpersonal skills are also a major plus, as you’ll be spending plenty of time working with patients who are in discomfort and who will want to have their concerns validated and their symptoms taken seriously. Becoming an orthopedic nurse practitioner also requires a certain amount of stamina and dexterity, as you’ll sometimes need to physically maneuver patients to conduct accurate assessments. Finally, the ability to take charge and keep cool under pressure is a must, as patients suffering from acute injuries may be in shock or in pain, and will greatly benefit from a calming presence.

Where Do Orthopedic Nurse Practitioners Work?

You’ll find orthopedic nurse practitioners working anywhere people are being treated for injuries. Most commonly, that means hospital emergency rooms and orthopedic departments, specialty outpatient clinics, or urgent-care facilities. Experienced orthopedic nurse practitioners can also find jobs working for medical device manufacturers, insurance companies, and even the federal government. Orthopedic nurse practitioner hours may vary greatly depending on the employer—outpatient clinics usually follow more standard business hours, whereas 24-hour facilities like hospitals or urgent care clinics may require working nights, weekends, or on-call shifts. After all, injuries and accidents can happen at all hours of the day and night!

Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner Schooling & Certification

How Long Does It Take to Become an Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner?

What Degree Do You Need to Be an Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner?

Since orthopedic nurse practitioners operate with lots of independence, it’s a career that requires earning multiple nursing degrees (not to mention lots of experience treating patients). Like any other nursing specialty, you’ll need to start by earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited college or university. Traditionally, that requires spending a full four years in school, but with an accelerated degree program, you could earn your BSN in as little as 32 months! You’ll also need to complete a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) program before you’ll be eligible to practice as an APRN.

Any long-term goal seems much more attainable when you break it down into individual steps, and becoming an orthopedic nurse practitioner is no different.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become an orthopedic nurse practitioner:

1. Enroll in a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) Program

Your orthopedic nurse practitioner education begins with enrolling in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program from an accredited college or university. While anyone who’s completed nursing school will tell you it’s a significant challenge, most of the highest-paid nursing jobs are open to just about anyone who’s willing to put in the work. For example, to enroll in the BSN program at Brookline College, all it takes is a high school diploma or GED with a GPA of 2.5 or higher, plus a passing score on the ATI-TEAS admission exam.

Close up of doctor's coat and stethoscope

2. Earn Your BSN Degree

The first major milestone to reach before you can become an orthopedic nurse practitioner is earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Your BSN coursework will include general-education requirements like math, literature, statistics, psychology, and communications—courses you’ll find in any bachelor’s degree program. While these classes may not seem directly related to nursing or medicine, they’ll build your problem-solving and communication skills, which will help you decipher tricky diagnoses and improve your bedside manner with your patients.

Of course, the main focus of your BSN program will involve learning the various aspects of nursing. Many of your classes will cover how to assess and care for all types of medical conditions, including the musculoskeletal injuries you’ll primarily encounter as an orthopedic nurse practitioner. Others will teach you about pharmacology and all the different medicines and units of measure used in the medical field. You’ll also cover health care law and ethics and take classes that focus on improving your evidence-based decision-making. These classes will polish the knowledge and skills to analyze symptoms and build effective treatment plans accurately, and teach you how to handle situations that may have moral or legal implications.

Alongside your nursing-specific coursework, you’ll also spend time studying related medical sciences like anatomy, microbiology, nutrition, and human development. While you’ll certainly treat plenty of patients for acute injuries while working as an orthopedic nurse practitioner, you’ll also advise them on general wellness tactics to live healthier lives and promote speedier recoveries.

The final step of your BSN education requires completing a clinical capstone program, which will give you real-world experience treating patients with a variety of medical issues. While your nursing education will involve plenty of hands-on exercises that will teach you how to treat orthopedic injuries, there’s no substitute for spending time in an actual clinical environment. Throughout your clinical practice, you’ll have to keep your emotions in check and apply what you’ve learned throughout your training. Since orthopedic nurse practitioners frequently operate with little supervision by physicians, you’ll need to have the utmost confidence in your ability to diagnose and treat everything from traumatic injuries to chronic conditions.

Wherever you choose to pursue your nursing degree, make sure it’s with a college that’s up-to-date on the latest training tools and one that’s committed to supporting their students as they make the transition from nursing school to a nursing career. Colleges that offer students extra services like job-placement programs can sometimes help you line up your first job as an RN before you’ve even hosted your graduation party!

3. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

Just like any other advanced-practice nursing specialty, becoming an orthopedic nurse practitioner first requires getting licensed as a registered nurse by passing the NCLEX-RN exam. The NCLEX is a computer-adaptive test, meaning the number of questions and the amount of time it takes will depend on how many questions you answer correctly. The highest number of questions is typically around 265 over a maximum of six hours. However, the test can also be over in as few as 75 questions if you’re answering everything correctly! Two optional breaks are scheduled at the 2-hour mark and the 3.5-hour mark. Practice NCLEX exams are widely available online, and can often improve your performance on test day. By taking the practice exam, not only will you be familiar with the format, you’ll be able to brush up beforehand on any areas you may need to review.

Masked nurse in scrubs

4. Gain Experience as a Licensed Registered Nurse

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX, you’ll be eligible to receive a nursing license from the state in which you intend to practice. The NCLEX is nationally recognized, which means you can choose between staying close to home or making a fresh start somewhere new! For a future career as an orthopedic nurse practitioner, you’ll want to gain as much experience as possible working with orthopedic patients. That will likely mean seeking out RN experience at specialty orthopedic clinics, or within hospital orthopedic departments. The more relevant experience you have, the more likely you are to impress potential employers when it comes time to start your career as an orthopedic nurse practitioner.

Nursing license renewal requirements vary by state, but you’ll generally need to renew your license every two to three years. As long as you’ve been actively working as a registered nurse or participating in continuing education programs (like an MSN degree program, for example), you shouldn’t have much trouble keeping your RN license current.

5. Earn a Postsecondary Nursing Degree

Since orthopedic nurse practitioners often serve as the lead healthcare provider for patients dealing with severe injuries, they must earn a postgraduate nursing degree—almost always a master’s of science in nursing (MSN). Some colleges offer MSN programs specifically for orthopedic nursing, though with sufficient experience, you can also become an orthopedic nurse practitioner after completing an APRN program focused on family nursing, gerontological nursing, or pediatric nursing.

Advanced-practice MSN programs are available at nursing schools throughout the country, including online programs that allow working full-time as an RN while earning your master’s degree. Typically, earning your MSN degree takes two more years in school, though you can finish some accelerated programs as quickly as 18 months.

6. Become a Certified Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner

After completing an APRN master’s degree and amassing enough clinical hours working with orthopedic patients, you’ll be eligible to take an exam from the Orthopedic Nurses Certification Board to get certified as an Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner (ONP-C). This highly respected credential is one of the best ways to prove to employers and patients alike that you’re more than adequately trained to handle all types of orthopedic issues with minimal oversight. ONP-C certifications are valid for five full years before requiring renewal.

Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner Salary

How Much Do Orthopedic Nurse Practitioners Make?

According to Salary.com, orthopedic nurse practitioners bring home an average annual salary* of over $115,000 per year, which comes out to over $58 per hour. Among the top 10% of all earners, orthopedic nurse practitioner salaries can routinely reach $129,000 per year and up.

Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Orthopedic Nurse Practitioners?

As long as people are still playing sports, doing physical labor, or even just experiencing the occasional bit of bad luck, there will remain a need for specialists like orthopedic nurse practitioners. While the BLS doesn’t provide detailed job data specifically for orthopedic nurse practitioners, the overall number of nurse practitioners working throughout the US is expected to increase an impressive 45% by the year 2030. When you consider the average growth rate for all other jobs is only around 4%, orthopedic nurse practitioners have one of the most promising job outlooks of any career in the healthcare industry.

Female graduate holding a stethoscope

Ready to Start Your Career as an Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner?

Most orthopedic NPs will tell you there’s a unique satisfaction in helping people overcome traumatic injuries or chronic conditions that have plagued them for years. After all, the ability to move our bodies is a critical part of our freedom, independence, and overall enjoyment of life! If you’re excited about a career spent helping people return to doing the things they love, becoming an orthopedic nurse practitioner could be the nursing specialty you’ve been looking for. Not only is it one of the highest-paying nursing jobs, it’s a chance to improve other people’s lives every single time you come to work.

Ready to start taking steps toward a rewarding career as an orthopedic nurse practitioner? Click here to learn more about the BSN program at Brookline College, and get started on the road to your new career in nursing today!