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What is a Trauma Surgeon?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 24, 2021

Trauma surgeons (also called critical care and acute care surgeons) specialize in performing emergency surgeries on people who’ve had a critical injury or illness. Trauma surgery requires extensive knowledge of surgical procedures and how to manage different types of injuries. A trauma surgeon can help you pull through a critical injury or an acute illness. 

What Does a Trauma Surgeon Treat?

Trauma surgeons are qualified to diagnose and surgically repair trauma caused by injuries and illness. They must quickly evaluate a person’s condition and determine what type of operation--if any--is necessary.

If you see a trauma surgeon, it’s usually after you arrive at a hospital’s emergency room. They come onto your care team if it’s possible that you’ll need surgery to treat your illness or injury.

Conditions a trauma surgeon might treat include: 

Blunt or Penetrating Trauma

Blunt trauma is any injury from a forceful impact. Common causes are motor vehicle crashes, falls, or assaults. Penetrating trauma is an injury from an object that pierces the skin and other tissues, including gunshot wounds, stab wounds, and farm equipment injuries. 

Burns

You may need a trauma surgeon to treat severe burns, such as thermal burns, chemical burns, frostbite, and inhalation injury burns. Treatment options can include emergency surgery, skin excision, and skin grafting procedures. 

Acute Care & Emergency General Surgery Conditions

Sometimes people have unexpected medical emergencies that need immediate surgical intervention. Trauma surgeons can treat appendicitis, diverticulitis, cholecystitis, a perforated bowel, a perforated ulcer, abdominal abscesses, incarcerated hernias, and bowel obstructions.  

Surgical Critical Care Conditions

Trauma surgeons also perform surgical critical care procedures on patients who were already in the hospital for another surgery or procedure. This includes people with sepsis, respiratory failure, multi-organ failure, or coagulopathy.

If you go to the emergency room with any of these critical injuries or illnesses, a trauma surgeon will quickly evaluate your medical condition and determine the best course of treatment. Sometimes, this means rushing you into emergency surgery. 

The procedures a trauma surgeon uses depend on your condition, but may include:

  • Exploratory laparotomy
  • Emergency thoracotomy
  • Resuscitation
  • Chest wall stabilization

After treating your emergency condition, a trauma surgeon will either continue working with you as you recover or transfer your care to another doctor or surgeon. 

Education and Training

Trauma surgeons are medical doctors who have trained in the field of general surgery, with a trauma surgery specialty. Like most surgeons, trauma surgeons must complete medical school and surgical residencies to practice as a trauma surgeon. 

For their education and training, trauma surgeons complete:

  • An average of four years in an undergraduate program
  • An average of four years in medical school
  • A four-to-five-year residency during which the doctor focuses on general surgery
  • A one-to-two-year fellowship program, during which the doctor focuses on trauma and critical care
  • A licensing exam called the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination 
  • A certification in General Surgery from the American Board of Surgery 
  • A subspecialty certification in Surgical Critical Care from the American Board of Surgery
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

The American Association for the Surgery of Trauma: “Trauma Facts.”

UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine: “Trauma Surgeons vs. ER Doctors.

Yale School of Medicine: “Kimberly Davis, MD: The intense life of a trauma surgeon.

Bureau of Labor Statistics: “How to Become a Physician or Surgeon.”

The American Board of Surgery: “Surgical Critical Care Certifying Exam.”

UWHealth: “Level 1 Trauma Care.”

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