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Operating Room Nurse Career Overview

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Operating room (OR) nurses care for patients before, during, and after surgeries. They play a key role in ensuring operations occur safely and successfully. They may also be referred to as perioperative nurses or surgical nurses.

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Operating Room Nurse Career in Brief

adn or bsn required
certification options

OR nurses play an important role in all aspects of surgeries, from preparation to patient recovery. They work under physicians and surgeons and may supervise nursing assistants or surgical technologists. As part of a surgical team, they must be good communicators and able to respond calmly to unexpected or high-stress situations.

OR nurse jobs include these key skills and responsibilities:

Primary Responsibilities
  • Preparing patients for operations
  • Ensuring that equipment and operating rooms are sterile
  • Assisting during surgeries
  • Caring for patients during the postoperative stage
Career Traits
  • Methodical
  • Attention to detail
  • Adaptable
  • Calm under pressure
  • Collaborative

Image: Shannon Fagan / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Certification Options: Certified Perioperative Nurse and Certified Registered Nurse First Assistant

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Where Do Operating Room Nurses Work?

Most OR nurse jobs take place in inpatient and outpatient settings at hospitals, surgical centers, or physician practices.


Hospitals


OR nurses ensure the operating room is sterile and equipped, assist during the procedure, and monitor patients during recovery.


Surgical Centers


Perioperative nurses educate patients on the procedure and postsurgery treatment, assist during operations, and make certain patients are safely discharged.


Physician Practices


OR nurses sterilize room and medical equipment, assist during the procedure, and follow up with patients after release.


What Are the Different Types of Perioperative Nursing Roles?

OR and surgical nurses both fall under the specialty area of perioperative nursing. Included under this specialty are three distinct roles.

Scrub Nurse
A scrub nurse prepares the operating room and equipment, assists surgeon(s) during the procedure, and prepares patients for the recovery room.
Circulating Nurse
A circulating nurse confirms equipment and room sterility, advocates for patients as needed during surgery, and alerts the surgical team to any issues or problems.
RN First Assistant (RNFA)
The RFNA controls bleeding during surgery, sutures incisions and wounds, and assists in stabilizing patients when necessary.

How to Become an Operating Room Nurse

Graduate with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or an associate degree in nursing (ADN)
The first step toward becoming an OR nurse or surgical nurse includes earning a nursing degree. An ADN can take two years to complete. A BSN takes four years to complete, with many employers seeking nurses with this degree over an ADN.

Pass the NCLEX-RN exam to receive licensure as a registered nurse (RN)
This national exam, which takes up to six hours, covers situations RNs may encounter in their work.

Gain experience in surgical nursing practice
RNs can work in entry-level OR nurse jobs upon graduation. To obtain the certified perioperative nurse (CNOR) credential, OR nurses need a minimum of 2 years and 2,400 hours of experience in nursing before, during, and after surgeries, with a minimum of 1,200 hours in surgery.

Improve your job prospects by becoming a CNOR
This certification is not mandatory, as employers provide training and mentoring to entry-level staff. However, OR nurses with certification often hold an advantage in career advancement and compensation.

How Much Do Operating Room Nurses Make?

The average annual salary for OR nurses is $76,220, according to PayScale. In 2019, the highest paid 10% of RNs earned more than $111,200. Urban areas pay OR nurses higher salaries, with academic medical centers paying more than community hospitals.

Jobs for RNs in general are projected to grow faster than average, increasing 7% between 2019 and 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • What career advancement opportunities are available for OR nurses?

    OR nurses can seek RNFA certification or become nurse practitioners through an advanced degree (master’s or doctorate) and a certification exam. RNFA certification requires prior CNOR certification.

  • Are OR nurses in demand?

    OR nurses, like all RNs, are in considerable demand. During 2020, many hospitals and surgical centers had to cancel or postpone surgeries due to a shortage of OR nurses.

  • At what types of locations do OR nurses work?

    OR nurses work in a variety of settings such as hospitals, surgical centers, clinics, physicians’ offices, and any healthcare setting where operations take place. However, most work in hospitals, surgical centers, and physicians’ offices.

  • What are some common surgeries OR nurses may assist with?

    OR nurses assist with common surgeries, such as cataract removal, C-sections, joint replacements, bone repair, cardiac surgery, and stent placements. Some, such as cataract removal, rarely require general anesthesia and conclude quickly, while others demand more time.

Resources for Operating Room Nurses


  • Association of periOperative Registered Nurses AORN provides OR nurses with clinical guidelines, publications, continuing professional education, leadership courses, and scholarship and grant opportunities. It has approximately 43,000 members, with membership open to OR nurses and other industry professionals.
  • AORN Career Center The AORN Career Center lists OR nurse jobs, primarily in the United States. Anybody can use the site to look for jobs, post their resume, and set up career alerts, but only AORN members can use the customizable salary calculator.
  • American Society of PeriAnesthesia Nurses ASPAN serves approximately 60,000 members in the fields of ambulatory surgery, pain management, and preanesthesia and postanesthesia care. It offers professional education; publishes research, standards, and clinical practice resources; and engages in advocacy. OR nurses can enroll as full members, and other healthcare professionals can enroll as associate members.
  • American Pediatric Surgical Nurses Association APSNA describes itself as influencing pediatric surgical nursing by creating opportunities for collaboration, mentorship, and leadership. For example, APSNA provides ongoing education, offers publications, and hosts an annual conference. RNs and advanced practice nurses can join as active members, while other healthcare professionals can join as affiliate members.

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Portrait of Nicole Galan, RN, MSN

Nicole Galan, RN, MSN

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

Feature Image: Dana Neely / Stone / Getty Images

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