What Does Surgical Nursing Mean in Medical Terms?

nurse who works in surgery department

Since its conception in the 1800s, modern nursing has become a huge industry responsible for employing over 4 million healthcare workers in the U.S. alone! And along with this growth, nursing has become increasingly specialized, with specific training, equipment, and education associated with nearly every branch. 

Nurses today can choose from a huge range of specialties, including the exciting field of surgical nursing. But what does surgical nursing mean in medical terms, and why would you consider it as a potential career path?

Simply put, surgical nursing, which may also be called perioperative nursing or operating room (OR) nursing, is a specialized field of nursing focused on patient care before, during, and after surgery. Of course, that’s a pretty broad definition, especially if you’re trying to decide on an early career path. So today, we will dig into the specifics of this fast-paced and utterly critical role.

Let’s get started!

What Does Perioperative Mean?

As a term that is often associated with this branch of nursing, understanding the concept of perioperative care is integral to understanding the greater role that surgical nurses play in the OR.

According to Merriam-Webster, perioperative care means “Relating to, occurring in, or being the period around the time of a surgical operation.” As a result, perioperative care refers to any care the patient receives throughout their healthcare journey following the decision or need to undertake surgery.

From the moment the patient comes into the hospital ahead of a surgery to the point when they are returned home, they are receiving perioperative care. And the nurses helping to take care of that patient are typically perioperative or surgical nurses, depending on the preferred terminology of the facility. 

Of course, the different phases of perioperative care may require very different kinds of nursing. A nurse helping with a surgery in the OR will have a very different job than a nurse helping to prepare patients for said surgery.

There are three distinct phases of perioperative care, each requiring different skills and procedures. Understanding each can help develop a more holistic grasp of the entire field of perioperative nursing.

Preoperative Phase

A surprising amount of work goes into preparing a patient for surgery. From the moment the patient decides they’re ready for surgery, they begin the preoperative phase.

This phase may consist of literally just the time it takes the patient to get changed into a gown and wheeled into surgery; it could also mean months of weight loss or other preparation. Most often, it means some amount of preparation for the patient to undergo surgery. Helping your patient fast, shave, and mentally prepare for surgery are all fairly common procedures for nurses working in preoperative care.

Perhaps most important of all, preoperative nurses must help patients manage their stress heading into surgery. Surgery—especially one requiring general anesthesia—can be an incredibly frightening experience for anyone. The preoperative nurse is usually the last person the patient will see and interact with before surgery begins.

Intraoperative Phase

The intraoperative phase is where the OR nurses come in. Once the patient is situated, the surgery can begin. Nurses working in the operating room may need to fulfill many roles.

For instance, your entire job throughout the majority of the surgery may be handing the doctor(s) the tools they need when they need them. And though this job may seem simple in theory, it is an utterly essential role during most surgeries.

Other nurses may help doctors with the surgery itself, handling the patient and stitching wounds. Still others may clean the OR or equipment, ensuring the space remains sterile and the patient does not face a heightened risk for infection.

The intraoperative phase is typically the most stressful of the three, as it’s where all the action happens. If a complication arises, OR nurses must be ready to make rapid and coherent decisions regardless of the circumstances.

Postoperative Phase

Finally, there is the postoperative phase, during which the patient will finish with their care and ultimately head home (or back to the general hospital ward for their eventual recovery). 

The length and intensity of this phase, like those of the preoperative phase, vary wildly based on the details of each patient’s surgery.

A patient recovering from spinal surgery or multiple broken bones will require much more hands-on care than a patient undergoing same-day surgery for an ingrown toenail. Regardless of the length of the patient’s stay, the postoperative phase includes everything from the point when the surgeon completes the surgery until the patient returns home. 

Often, nurses work in both preoperative and postoperative care, as there’s a lot of overlap between the two phases. However, one important difference is the specialized field of post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) nursing.

PACU nurses work with patients directly after their surgery, guiding these patients through the lingering effects of anesthesia. As a PACU nurse, you will usually be the first one to see the patient in the postoperative phase. 

You can learn a lot more about the unique skills and challenges involved in PACU care in our Ultimate Guide to PACU Nursing.

A Career as an OR Nurse

As you can see, the field of surgical nursing is varied and exciting, unique from every other form of nursing. 

Even within the field of surgical nursing itself, the phase you’re working in, the needs of the patient, and the specifics of their surgery can mean a job description that changes daily! Compound this with the number of surgeries performed every year, and there is a lot of variation in the job of a surgical nurse.

Surgical nursing can be a great option for nurses who favor this flexible and fast-paced work. And though this article is by no means an exhaustive explanation of everything you can expect as a surgical nurse, it should help you understand the field a little better and how it fits into the greater medical system.

Now that you know what surgical nursing means in medical terms, learn more about the specifics of surgical or operating room nursing in our Ultimate Guide to OR Nursing. We also cover a range of timely and relevant topics for per diem nurses in every stage of their careers in our per diem nursing blog.

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