An Overview of Surgical Specialties

operation room
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There are a variety of surgical specialties—some of which are broader in scope than others. Aside from differences in training that qualify them to perform certain surgeries, physicians with surgical specialties tend to conduct many of the same procedures again and again. A key to having the most successful outcome is ensuring that you find the right doctor to perform yours, and that experience can be invaluable.

As you plan for your procedure, it's helpful to get acquainted with the various surgical specialities, from general to cardiac and beyond, and to learn more about what you should consider when deciding on the right surgical specialist for you.

Who Should Perform Your Surgery?

In the United States, a surgeon has a minimum of five years of surgical residency training. And some specialty and subspecialty surgeons have many more years of training before practicing independently.

It isn't enough to be a doctor, the person performing your procedure needs to be trained as a surgeon as well as trained in the right specialty.

In most cases, there is a specific type of surgeon who should perform your procedure. For example, if you have broken your leg, you need an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in bone issues.

While it is usually clear what type of surgeon is needed, there are areas where the specialties of surgeons overlap. A good example of this is spinal surgery, which can be performed by both neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons. The neurosurgeon might be more appropriate for surgery on the spine itself, while the orthopedic surgeon could be more appropriate for issues with the bones of the spine.

There are many things that may factor into the surgeon you select, some of which may end up being related to more practical matters like your location and insurance coverage. But, those things aside, you will want the surgeon who has the best outcomes to perform the procedure that you need.

The right kind of surgeon will:

  • Be board-certified in the specialty your surgery requires
  • Perform the procedure you require on a regular or frequent basis
  • Have a history of excellent outcomes performing the procedure you need
  • Be free of excessive malpractice suits by former patients
  • In good standing with the state Board of Medicine
  • Perform surgery at a hospital or surgery center that provides excellent care

Training of Surgeons

Both medical doctors (MDs) and doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs) can pursue becoming surgeons, though MDs tend to do so more often. Surgeons follow a predictable career path in the United States. Most start their professional lives by going to medical school, which is then followed by a residency in surgery that lasts for five years. Some paths, such as obstetrics/gynecology, are slightly different.

Residency trains surgeons for the practice of general surgery. After their residency, a surgeon can practice independently as a general surgeon but must be board-certified in general surgery within seven academic years.

Surgeons—physicians who practice surgery—can train in an area of specialization and may go on to further pursue a subspecialty after their initial training. For example, a surgeon may complete a general surgery residency and then decide to complete additional education in cardiothoracic (heart/lung) surgery. They could then even go on to pursue another subspecialty, such as pediatric heart transplant surgery.

Surgeons can also specialize within their chosen specialty. Cardiac surgeons may focus on performing heart bypass surgeryheart valve repairs, or another heart surgery, or they may practice many types of heart surgery. A surgeon who practices as a general surgeon may prefer to perform appendectomies whenever possible. By performing many appendectomies, the surgeon has elected to specialize in appendix surgery but still has the ability and training to perform many other surgeries.

Types of Surgical Specialties

There are more than a dozen main surgical specialties, but many more subspecialties that fall under them. Depending on your case, you may need a doctor with more than one of these specialties, or a surgical team comprised of individuals with certain specialties working together.

You can confirm your surgeon's specialty and board certification through the American Board of Medical Specialties. Information is available on their website or by calling 1-866-ASK-ABMS (275-2267).

General Surgery

General surgery is the specialty of treating problems from almost any part of the body, including common abdominal issues, such as hernias and appendicitis, with surgery. Most surgeons go through a general surgery residency program and may choose to practice general surgery or train further in a specialty area.

Pediatric Surgery

This specialty of treating health issues of children with surgery is often combined with other specialties. Interestingly, some adults are treated by pediatric surgeons at pediatric facilities if their condition was present at birth or in childhood.

The following surgeons are best trained to deal with specific pediatric issues:

  • Neonatal surgeons: Focus on surgery of newborns and infants
  • Prenatal surgeons: A new and often experimental area of surgery where a procedure is performed to correct issues prior to a fetus being born

Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose, and Throat)

This is the specialty of using surgery to treat issues of the ears, nose, and throat (ENT), as well as the head and neck.

Ophthalmology

This is the specialty of treating eye conditions with surgery. These conditions may be present from birth, related to an accident or trauma, or develop with age.

Orthopedic Surgery

Surgery is used in this specialty to treat issues with bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons in both children and adults. Further subspecialties include:

  • Foot and ankle orthopedics
  • Hand surgery
  • Joint replacement
  • Orthopedic oncology
  • Pediatric orthopedics
  • Spine surgery
  • Sports medicine
  • Trauma surgery

Podiatric Surgery

Foot surgery may be performed by orthopedic surgeons (MDs) or podiatrists. The terms podiatric medicine and podiatry generally refer to doctors of podiatric medicine (DPMs), who are not medical doctors but are physicians specially trained to perform foot and ankle surgeries.

Gynecology and Obstetrics Surgery

OB/GYNs provide wellness care, birth control, and care during pregnancy and childbirth. All such providers are surgeons and may treat issues with the female reproductive system with and without surgery.

Oncology

Oncology is the general term for specialties that use surgery to treat cancers throughout the body. Many specialties, however, treat cancer as part of their practice. For example, otolaryngology might treat throat cancer and orthopedic surgeons may play a role in treating bone cancer. While they may not specifically practice in the area of oncology, they are able to do so with their training.

Gynecologic Oncology

This is the surgical specialty of treating reproductive cancer in women. There is some overlap between OB/GYN and gynecologic oncology. For example, both specialties are trained to perform a hysterectomy. But a gynecologic oncologist has specialized in performing the surgery as a treatment specifically for cancer rather than for another condition.

Cardiac Surgery

Cardiac surgery is the specialty of treating heart issues with surgical procedures. Pediatric cardiac surgeons may perform surgery on newborns and infants to correct issues present at birth. Adult issues are more likely to involve repairing and replacing heart valves (that have become diseased with age) and treating coronary artery disease.

Thoracic Surgery

This is the specialty of treating issues in the chest cavity, excluding the heart, with surgery.

When a surgeon performs cardiac procedures that involve the lungs, as is often necessary, their specialty is referred to as cardiothoracic surgery.

Neurosurgery

This is the specialty of treating the central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord—with surgery. This type of surgery may include brain surgery, surgery to correct back pain, or treatment of cancer in the nervous system or other neurological conditions.

Vascular Surgery

Vascular surgery is the specialty of treating issues of blood vessels with surgery. It is done to cosmetically treat conditions like varicose veins, to surgically treat vessels that aren't carrying enough blood to extremities, and to repair trauma.

Urology

Urology is both a medical and surgical specialty of treating issues in the urinary tract. This can range from treating symptoms of an overactive bladder to performing minimally invasive procedures for kidney stones.

Some urologists perform both minor and major surgical procedures, such as removal of the prostate to treat cancer. 

Colon and Rectal Surgery

This is the surgical specialty of treating issues of the small and large intestine, the rectum, and anus with surgery.

Bariatric Surgery

Bariatric surgeons are those who specialize in the treatment of obesity with surgery. Typically, bariatric surgeons have pursued additional education after a general surgery residency to specialize in this area. Interestingly, there are many types of weight loss procedures.

Oral Surgery

This specialty treats dental issues with surgery, such as wisdom tooth removal and root canals.

Maxillofacial Surgery

Maxillofacial surgery is the specialty of treating issues of the mouth, jaw, neck, and facial bones with surgery. These issues may be present at birth or can be caused by trauma or disease.

Plastic/Cosmetic and Reconstructive Surgery

This involves the specialty of improving appearance for cosmetic reasons or correcting defects or damage for a more personally desirable appearance or better function. This specialty can be practiced on pediatric patients, performing correction for issues such as a cleft palate, or on adults, providing rhinoplasty (a "nose job") or breast augmentation.

Transplant Surgery

Replacing failing or diseased organs with donated organs in surgery is this specialty. There are many types of surgeons and specialties that participate in a variety of transplantation.

For example, pediatric and adult transplant surgeons typically work with abdominal organs, including the intestine, pancreas, kidneys, and liver. And cardiothoracic surgeons, both pediatric and adult, typically work with heart and lung transplants. 

Trauma Surgery

This is the specialty of treating injuries from car crashes, gunshot wounds, stabbings, and other types of impact trauma with surgery. Multiple specialties, including trauma trained surgeons, vascular surgeons, general surgeons, and neurosurgeons may participate in trauma care.

Anesthesiology

Anesthesia physicians often work with nurses trained in anesthesia (CRNAs) to provide sedation during surgical procedures or supervise others who do. While anesthesiologists are not surgeons, they typically work hand-in-hand with them to make it possible for surgery to be performed without the patient feeling the procedure.

Anesthesiologists also provide pain prevention, such as an epidural prior to childbirth. Some even practice outside of the operating room, providing pain management to patients who require relief from chronic pain and related symptoms. 

A Word From Verywell

When you have a choice over who will perform your surgery, it is best to look for a surgeon who is board-certified in the type of surgery you need, performs the procedure frequently, and has a good track record. If possible, schedule consultations with two or more surgeons before making your selection.

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Article Sources

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  3. American Medical Association. Obstetrics and Gynecology.


  4. American College of Surgeons. A Guide to Surgical Specialists.


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