Surgeons say patients in some parts of England have spent months waiting in pain because of delayed operations or new restrictions on who qualifies for treatment.
In several areas routine surgery was put on hold for months, while in many others new thresholds for hip and knee replacements have been introduced.
The moves are part of the NHS drive to find £20bn efficiency savings by 2015.
The government said performance should be measured by outcomes not numbers.
Surgeons have described the delays faced by patients as "devastating and cruel". Peter Kay, the president of the British Orthopaedic Association (BOA), says they've become increasingly frustrated that hip and knee replacements are being targeted as a way of finding savings.
We've started to get reports over the last nine months that access to these services are being restricted”
End Quote Peter Kay, president of BOA
"GPs were told not so send as many patients to hospital, maybe to delay referrals until the end of the financial year while perhaps introducing thresholds for surgery."
He says that simply delaying surgery by one means or another does not improve the outcome for patients as their condition can deteriorate.
"The double jeopardy is that patients wait longer in pain, and when they have the operation, the result might not have been as good as it otherwise would have been had they had it early. "