What is a Surgical Nurse?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A surgical nurse is a nurse who specializes in perioperative care, meaning care provided to surgical patients before, during, and after surgery. There are a number of different kinds of surgical nurse, and surgical nursing as a career can be very demanding. Compensation in this field varies, depending on where a nurse works. Some surgical nurses make salaries which are comparable to those of doctors, while others struggle to get by on much less.

A surgical nurse assists patients and physicians during surgeries.
A surgical nurse assists patients and physicians during surgeries.

Surgery is never routine, no matter what surgeons might claim. Every surgical procedure requires a great deal of preparation and work to go smoothly, whether it is a procedure which is performed on a regular basis or not. This work is accomplished by a surgical team which includes the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, and surgical nurses, along with an assortment of technicians.

A surgical nurse administers medication through an IV during medical procedures.
A surgical nurse administers medication through an IV during medical procedures.

In pre-operative care, a surgical nurse helps to prepare a patient for surgery, both physically and emotionally. Surgical nurses may explain the procedure to the patient, and ease fears about the upcoming surgery and recovery. They also check the patient's vitals, administer medications, and help to sterilize and mark the surgical site.

During surgery, a surgical nurse assists the surgeon, passing instruments, keeping an eye on the patient's vital signs, and performing other tasks associated with the surgery, such as providing suction at the surgical site to remove blood and fluids. Some surgical nurses work as circulating nurses, patrolling the operating room to make sure that everyone stays sterile, and counting instruments, drapes, and other equipment to ensure that everything is where it is supposed to be. Nurses who are skilled at operating room work tend to receive excellent compensation, especially if particular surgeons become attached to them.

Post-operative care is also a critical part of the work of a surgical nurse. Nurses can work in acute recovery, keeping an eye on patients who are at serious risk of complications, and on more standard recovery floors in the hospital. They are usually responsible for changing dressings, monitoring vital signs, looking for signs of complications, and administering medications. The care of an attentive surgical nurse ensures that a patient's recovery goes as smoothly as possible.

People who want to become surgical nurses attend nursing school and specialize in surgical nursing. They are often required to pass examinations administered by the government or by nursing certification boards before being allowed to work as nurses, and they may also be expected to attend periodic continuing education classes so that they keep up with developments in the nursing field.

Surgical nurses specialize in the care of patients before, during and after surgical procedures.
Surgical nurses specialize in the care of patients before, during and after surgical procedures.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@anon297160: I've been in the operating room for over forty years and I started out as a surgical technologist and later went on to Nursing school. It's obvious that you haven't a clue what you're talking about when it comes to an operating room nurse's scope of practice.

I do everything from scrubbing, circulating, first assisting to cleaning rooms. I start IVs, and do patient interviews, along with patient teaching. I've recovered post operative patients while the surgical tech goes home because he/she has finished putting up their instruments. Talk the talk when you have walked in my shoe covers.


I worked many years in the O.R. as a technician and let me tell you that it's funny how these descriptions of "surgical nurses" do so much.

What really goes on nowadays: First, they page a runner to pick up the patients from the floor. Then when the patient is in the room, there are surgical technicians handing the instruments to the doctors (not nurses). During any non emergency cases, they sit on their butts doing who knows what on the operating room computer during the whole procedure if they're not being called for something.

A nurse today is not like the caring, hard working nurse they once where. Now they act like little divas who complain about doctors and badmouth each other every chance they get. It's just ridiculous. Health care is in a mess.


were is a good college to became a surgical nurse?


@dega2010: As far as nursing tasks, they are about the same with a plastic surgical nurse. There are many people who have conditions that really lower their self-esteem. I work with a lot of patients that have been involved in car accidents and their appearance has been completely altered, some with amputations.

It is very rewarding being a plastic surgical nurse because it is a wonderful feeling knowing that you have done something for someone that might put a smile back on their face. It really changes a patient’s life for the better.


What does a plastic surgical nurse do?


I work on the surgical unit at a local hospital. I do lots of different things. A lot of it is typical nursing care but we also have a lot of patients who come out of surgery with tubes, either NG or chest tubes.

Sometimes, working alongside the doctor while performing surgery can be very stressful, especially if the patient’s condition starts failing. We do suction during surgery, pass the surgical tools to the doctor and monitor the patient’s condition.

Surgical nurses are also often required to provide post-surgical care. I have to change dressings, provide pain medication and make sure that the patient wakes up okay in the recovery room.

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