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Ask a Nurse: Do Nurses Perform Surgery?

by Nicole Galan, RN, MSN
• 2 min read
Ask a Nurse: Do Nurses Perform Surgery?

In our Ask a Nurse series, experienced nurses provide an insider look at the nursing profession by answering your questions about nursing careers, degrees, and resources.


Question: Can a nurse perform surgery?


While nurses cannot perform complex surgical procedures independently, there are so many different roles that nurses can fill before, during, and after surgery. The good news is that according to the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN), surgical and postanesthesia care unit (PACU) nurses are among the highest in demand. So if you are passionate about pursuing a career in the operating room (OR), you will have lots of opportunities and room for professional growth.

What Does It Take to Be an OR Nurse?

  • Patience
  • A team player
  • Good communicator
  • Calm under pressure
  • Good at multitasking
  • Resilience
  • Flexibility
  • Personal integrity
  • Sense of humor

Yes, that was a sense of humor. Believe it or not, in high-stress environments like the operating room, a good sense of humor is a necessity for relieving stress and bonding with co-workers.

Ready to dive in? You have lots of options!

Nursing Roles in the OR

Scrub nurse

The scrub nurse will actually perform the surgical scrub and step right up to the table with the surgeon. They pass instruments back and forth, set up the room for surgery, and help maintain a sterile environment.

Circulating nurse

The circulating nurse, on the other hand, does not perform a surgical scrub. This nurse works in the OR to maintain documentation, handles nonsterile equipment, and updates family members. The circulating nurse also works in the pre-op area: completing paperwork, answering questions, performing assessments, and making sure everything is ready to go.

RN first assistant (RNFA)

The RNFA is a highly specialized nurse who works directly with the surgeon during the procedure. This may mean helping to control bleeding, suturing, applying bandages, and whatever other help the surgeon may need. How cool is that?

PACU nurse

The PACU nurse takes over after the surgery is complete. They will help patients wake up from the anesthesia, monitor for complications, and ensure adequate pain relief. Once the patient is stabilized, they will discharge them either to home or another unit in the hospital to continue recovery.

Surgical nurse practitioner

A surgical nurse practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice nurse, meaning they have received additional training and education (at least a master's degree). Surgical NPs work in all areas of the OR: performing pre-surgical assessments, counseling patients, administering medications, assisting patients with recovery, and even working alongside the surgeon in the actual operating room.

Nurse anesthetist

A certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) is a highly specialized nurse who has completed additional training in the administration of anesthesia. These advanced practice nurses also have at least a master's degree so that they can administer anesthesia and ensure a safe recovery afterwards.

How to Work as a Nurse in the OR

No matter which area is calling out to you, you will start by earning your license to practice as a registered nurse. In addition, there are lots of educational programs offered by AORN that will help you gain the training and experience you need to get the position you want.

If you are thinking about the surgical nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist roles, plan for a few more years of school in order to get a master's degree after you have a few years of experience in surgical or critical care units.

In Summary

  • Nurses cannot perform surgical procedures independently.
  • Nurses can fill many different roles before, during, and after surgical procedures.
  • Consider additional training or education to get the job you are most interested in.

Written by:

Nicole Galan, RN, MSN is an RN who started on a general medical/surgical care unit and then moved to infertility care, where she worked for almost 10 years. Galan has also worked for over 13 years as a freelance writer specializing in consumer health sites and educational materials for nursing students. She currently works as a full-time freelancer and recently earned her master's degree in nursing education from Capella University.


Feature Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

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