Surgical nurse holding surgical tools

Surgical nurses are skilled RNs that work in hospitals and surgical centers. They assist surgeons and other operative staff during procedures. They also ensure that the operating suite is always safe and sterile.

As a surgical nurse, you could be a surgeon's right hand during life-saving procedures. You must pass instruments to the physician before they’re even required. You have a sharp understanding and intensive knowledge of procedures, so you know what will happen next without skipping a beat. 

At the same time, surgical nurses are ready for anything. Operations are always carefully planned and adhere to protocol. But sometimes, things go wrong. In those instances, surgical nurses are ready to intervene and administer life-saving procedures to patients. 

What are other names for surgical nurses?

Surgical nurses are also called perioperative nurses and operating room nurses. These job titles have the same role so that you can apply for multiple positions under different names. 

Surgical nurses are often called perioperative nurses or operating room nurses in hospitals. They’re more likely to be called surgical nurses in outpatient surgical centers. 

What is the difference between a surgical nurse and a surgical technician?

Surgical nurses are registered nurses with specialized training and education in perioperative care. 

A surgical technician cares for patients before and after procedures rather than assisting a surgeon.

Registered nurses have degrees and licenses in their states. A surgical technician does not always need a degree, but they do need certification through the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA)

The scope of a surgical nurse’s job is more complex; they perform a wide range of responsibilities before, during, and after procedures. Their primary focus is assisting the surgeon during an operation to ensure they have all the necessary instruments. 

They also monitor patients’ vitals and provide any necessary surgical interventions. They also offer emotional support to patients and their families. They play a comprehensive role in the entire surgical process, from start to finish. 

Surgical technicians offer assistance in other ways; they are not directly helping the surgeon but rather prepping the area, equipment, and specific sites on a patient. 

What qualifications does a surgical nurse need?

To become a surgical nurse, you must have:

  • An associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing

  • A valid RN license in your state

  • At least two years of clinical practice

  • Certification as a CFPN (Certified Foundation Perioperative Nurse), CMSRN (Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse), CNFA (Certified Nurse First Assistant), or CNOR (Certified Perioperative Nurse)

You can earn your surgical nurse certification through the CCI, the leading credential recognized by the Association of Perioperative Registered Nurses.

Registering for the Association of Perioperative Nurses helps you access essential guidelines for the practice. Reviewing these topics can give you an idea of what types of things a surgical nurse needs to know. These include:

  • Maintaining a safe environment of care

  • Environmental cleaning of operating rooms

  • Hand hygiene

  • High-level disinfection protocol

  • Instrument cleaning and maintenance 

  • Minimally invasive surgical procedures

  • Patient positioning

  • Patient handling and movement

  • Sterile techniques and sterilization

Surgical nurses can also focus on various subspecialties, including cardiac surgery, transplant surgery, and pediatric surgery.

What work does a surgical nurse do day to day?

Surgical nurses spend their days in pre-, intra-, and post-surgical care. They provide ongoing support to patients and surgeons alike. 

The surgical nurse’s job starts when a patient is scheduled for surgery. They are assigned to patients preparing to undergo an operation and consult with them beforehand.

They’ll often meet with patients and their families, answer questions, and provide emotional support to ease anxiety. They’ll also guide the patient through the process and let them know what to expect after their procedure.

Before an operation begins, surgical nurses prep the operating room. They ensure the space is sterile and that all necessary medical equipment and instruments are present.

During a procedure, perioperative nurses maintain a sterile environment and pass instruments to the surgeon. This helps them avoid breaking concentration. 

After a procedure, surgical nurses check up on patients, provide after-care, and will update their families and care teams about their conditions. They can also instruct patients and families on steps to take at home to assist in recovery. 

Where do surgical nurses work?

Surgical nurses work in hospitals, trauma centers, and outpatient surgical centers. Depending on their subspecialty, they can work with different types of surgeons and specialize in particular procedures. 

What is it like to be a surgical nurse?

Surgery is intimidating for patients, whether it’s expected, elective, or completely out-of-the-blue. As a surgical nurse, you stand by them during this vulnerable period, offer support, and provide specialized care.

You must be comfortable handling intense emotions and have no qualms about working under pressure or stress. Not all operations go smoothly —- some people are literally between life and death when they undergo a procedure.

As a surgical nurse, you get to choose what types of procedures you assist with, and that is where you focus on honing your skills. You have to be so familiar with the operating suite and procedures that you’re just as knowledgeable as the surgeon.

It can be a stressful job, especially when you’re standing on your feet for 8 to 12 hours at a time. You also have to perform postoperative care, attend to patients in the recovery room, and update physicians on their patients’ status. 

Despite the physical and mental demands of surgical nursing, it is still a rewarding job. You get to help people receive the highest quality surgical care and often assist with procedures that save someone’s life.

How much do surgical nurses make?

The median annual salary for a surgical nurse in the United States is $76,757.41. Salaries can range from $58,857 to over $114,000. Surgical nurses with more experience and certification qualify for a higher pay rate.

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Are there different specialties of surgical nurses?

Absolutely! Just like surgeons have a specialty, so can perioperative nurses. You can choose what type of surgery you are most passionate about and work toward gaining experience and certifications. 

Perioperative nurse subspecialties include oncology, transplant, trauma, pediatric, cardiac, reconstructive/plastic surgery, and general surgery. 

Advantages and disadvantages of a career as a surgical nurse

Are you interested in becoming a perioperative nurse? These pros and cons can help you decide whether this is the right field for you. 

Surgical nurses are specialized RNs who perform high-stress jobs every day. While the role isn’t easy, it has many benefits that could make it your dream career. 

Compare these benefits and disadvantages of surgical nursing below.

Advantages of choosing a career as a surgical nurse

1) Flexible schedule

OR nurses with enough experience can choose when they want to work. So, if you’re interested in a day shift that gives you more work-life balance, that’s possible. Expect to work night shifts when you’re a new perioperative nurse, as lower-level RNs don’t have as much control over when they work. 

2) Work on a passionate team of surgical nurses

Every member of the operating staff plays a vital role. You appreciate each other more and work closely with people who are committed to their jobs.

3) Guaranteed breaks during shifts

Break shift nurses give perioperative nurses much-needed breaks during long shifts. This is a great part of the job because you always know that you’ll have some reprieve.

4) Learn about surgical procedures 

You get a front-row seat during procedures, watching the surgeon perform their job with expert precision. It is fascinating to discover all the incredible ways humans can heal others, and it’s amazing to learn about surgery by witnessing it firsthand. 

Cons of choosing a career as a surgical nurse

1) High stress

It’s safe to say that there are few places in healthcare with as much tension as the OR. If something goes wrong, the entire suite is plunged into emergency response. You have to be capable of dropping everything and switching gears at a second’s notice. 

It’s not uncommon for the pressure to make people yell at one another or sometimes say something hurtful. It isn’t personal, but it can still sting. You must handle the pressure and avoid letting it get to you, even when it breaks others.

2) Turn over rates

Some hospitals or surgical centers turn over patients at high volumes. It can be stressful immediately finishing a procedure and getting ready for another one. Time management and organization are critical. 

3) Less emphasis on floor skills

Surgical nursing is truly a specialization, and you will rely more on your OR skills as a perioperative nurse than the ones you learned in nursing school. Expect a lot of foley catheters and IVs but less direct patient care and hands-on treatment. 

How to become a surgical nurse

If your dream is to become a surgical nurse, earn a degree. You can become a CNOR with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. 

If you want to start working as an RN quickly, then an associate’s degree is your best option. However, a bachelor's is best if you want a more comprehensive nursing education and the potential for management roles in the future.

While both associate’s and bachelor’s are acceptable to take the NCLEX (national certifying exam), many employers prefer candidates with BSNs. 

During nursing school, you can choose to work in different parts of the hospital. Do a semester or two in the OR, which will help you get first-hand experience in surgical nursing.

Once you graduate, it’s time to gain clinical practice experience. Through your work and continuing education courses, you’ll be able to work toward one of the surgical nurse certifications employers look for.

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Frequently asked questions about surgical nurses

How long does it take to become a surgical nurse?

At the minimum, it takes 4 to 5 years to become a perioperative nurse. You can earn your  CFPN (Certified Foundation Perioperative Nurse) with under 23 months’ experience, then earn a CNOR after you have at least two years clinical practice under your belt. 

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What degree is needed to become a surgical nurse? 

You can become a surgical nurse with an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in nursing (ADN or BSN).

Where do operating room nurses work?

Surgical nurses work in a variety of locations. Usually, they work in hospitals with surgical units, but they can also work in outpatient surgical centers. Some work in cancer centers, others in trauma hospitals, and some take their skills on the road as travel surgical nurses.

How many surgical nurses are there in the US?

According to the CCI, there are currently over 40,000 CNORs in the United States. 

Are surgical nurses in demand?

Absolutely. Surgery is one element of healthcare that will always have a critical demand for qualified nurses. No matter where you live, there is guaranteed to be a job available for a nurse with surgical skills and knowledge.