What Is a Surgeon?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 13, 2023
3 min read

A surgeon is a doctor who specializes in evaluating and treating conditions that may require surgery, or physically changing the human body. Surgeries can be done to diagnose or treat disease or injury. In the operating room, surgeons lead a team of other doctors and nurses to make sure that a procedure goes smoothly.

Surgeons use instruments to change or move live tissue, including:

  • Lasers
  • Ultrasound
  • Ionizing
  • Radiation
  • Scalpels
  • Probes
  • Needles

There are two main types of surgery. Open surgery requires a cut into the skin so the surgeon can see into the body. Minimally invasive surgery requires smaller entry points to make repairs and take tissue samples. It generally has less recovery time than open surgery. But not all surgeries have a minimally-invasive option.

There are different surgeons for each area of your body, and each uses a variety of techniques. Some of the most common surgery specialties are: 

  • General surgeon. A general surgeon operates on a wide range of conditions that can affect almost any part of your body. 
  • Colon and rectal surgeon. Patients with issues in any part of their intestines will probably see this specialist.
  • Neurosurgeon. Neurosurgeons deal with disorders and illnesses related to your brain and nervous system
  • Obstetrician and gynecologist (OB/GYN). OB/GYNs have two areas of expertise. The first involves working with pregnant women, delivering babies, and caring for babies after they're born. The second is treating conditions related to the female reproductive system
  • Ophthalmologist. One of the duties of this kind of eye doctor is doing surgical procedures to correct eye and visual problems.  
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeon. This surgeon operates on the head, neck, face, and jaw. 
  • Orthopedic surgeon. Orthopedic surgeons treat issues of the musculoskeletal system, which includes bones, muscles, joints, arteries, associated nerves, and overlying skin. 
  • Otolaryngologist. Otolaryngologists are also called ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctors because they specialize in those three body parts. 
  • Pediatric surgeon. Pediatric surgeons work with children, from newborns to teenagers. 
  • Plastic and maxillofacial surgeon. Plastic surgeons do cosmetic surgeries as well as handle the repair, replacement, and reconstruction of the body. 
  • Thoracic surgeon. Also called cardiac or cardiothoracic surgeons, these doctors specialize in operating on your heart and other chest organs.
  • Urologist. An urologist typically operates on your kidneys, ureters, bladder, prostate, urethra, and testes. 
  • Vascular surgeon. Vascular surgeons operate on your circulatory system

The path to becoming a surgeon is long and intense. It involves:

  • College. The first step is to earn an undergraduate degree, typically in pre-med or another science-oriented subject. 
  • Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Those who hope to be surgeons must pass this exam. Many students take it during their final years of college so they have plenty of time to apply for medical school before graduating. 
  • Medical school. The next step is 4 years of medical school. Many medical schools offer specific tracks of study.
  • Surgical specialty and residency. Around graduation, doctors need to decide which specialty area they want to pursue and find a residency program. Some specialties may require additional exams. 

Surgical residencies last at least 5 years, longer than other areas of medicine. After residency, doctors may begin working as surgeons. 

Surgery can be emergent or elective. Emergent surgeries are done for an urgent life-threatening condition, such as a serious injury. Elective surgeries can be scheduled in advance and don't need to be performed right away, although they aren’t always optional.

You may have surgery to: 

  • Learn more about a condition to get an accurate diagnosis
  • Get a tissue sample from a suspicious area
  • Repair or remove diseased tissue or organs 
  • Take out an obstruction 
  • Move body parts back to their correct position
  • Redirect blood vessels
  • Transplant organs 
  • Put mechanical or electronic devices inside the body 
  • Change your appearance