Procedure vs. Surgery: Uses, Benefits, Side Effects, & More

The words "procedure" and "surgery" describe two different medical interventions. Though often used interchangeably, these terms represent different treatments.

The key difference between a procedure and surgery is that surgery is more invasive and requires an incision, cutting into the skin, to access body tissue, organs, or other internal parts. Procedures are general medical interventions that generally do not require an incision and are less invasive.

This article shows the difference between procedures and surgery to help people understand the terms of their therapy.


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What to Know About Procedures

A medical procedure is generally used to describe a minimally or noninvasive medical intervention that is used to diagnose, treat, monitor, or examine various conditions and diseases. A procedure is "a series of steps followed in a regular definite order."

Procedures typically do not need a healthcare provider to cut into the skin, which is the key difference from surgery.

How Does It Work?

Some of the most common procedures and how they work include the following:

  • Physical examination: Also called a physical exam or a checkup, this is a standard procedure that is usually done annually by a healthcare provider. The physical exam looks for health problems and determines if additional screenings or testing need to be done.
  • Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD): An EGD can also be called an upper endoscopy. It uses a small, thin tube with a camera at the end. This is inserted into the mouth to look at the lining of the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine.
  • Colonoscopy: This procedure uses a small, thin tube with a camera at the tip which is inserted into the anus and is guided up through the large intestine. Colonoscopies look for colon cancer, polyps, and other changes in the intestine.
  • Diagnostic studies: Procedures can also be diagnostic tools that look for various changes in the body. Some of the more common diagnostic studies are X-ray, CT scan, and fluoroscopy.

A healthcare provider determines which procedure is best for each person's circumstances.

Side Effects

Some procedures have side effects. If a procedure requires the use of sedation or anesthesia, there is a risk of waking up with nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, or impaired judgment.

With procedures that insert lines, tubes, or other devices into the body, there is a risk of punctures, which can lead to bleeding.

X-rays, computed tomography (also known as a CT scan or CAT scan), and fluoroscopy use radiation. Everyone is exposed to some radiation from the environment, but when people are exposed to large levels of radiation, there is a risk of developing cancer later in life. Healthcare providers use procedures with radiation only when necessary.

What to Know About Surgery

Surgery is an invasive medical intervention using incisions to allow a healthcare provider to structurally change the body to treat or diagnose an illness or condition.

The term "surgical procedure" is often used, which can be confusing. When healthcare providers use this term, it is referring to surgery.

How Does It Work?

Surgeons are healthcare providers who have specialized training in their area of surgery. There are an incredible number of surgery types that someone can undergo. The most commons surgeries are:

  • An appendectomy is the removal of the appendix due to appendicitis, which is inflammation of the appendix.
  • A breast biopsy is used to remove breast tissue to look at the cells for abnormal growth, or it can be used to remove breast lumps.
  • A carotid endarterectomy removes carotid artery plaque buildup. This can prevent a stroke.
  • A Cesarean section, or c-section, is a surgery used to deliver a baby through the lower abdomen rather than the birth canal.
  • A cholecystectomy is the surgical removal of the gallbladder. Gallstones, infection, and cancer are three reasons to have a cholecystectomy.

Side Effects

Surgery holds many benefits and possible side effects as well. Before someone has surgery, a healthcare provider should go over a consent form that also lays out all the possible risks and side effects. It's important to understand that while the benefit of surgery could be substantial, there will always be potential side effects. Some side effects people may experience after surgery are:

Related: Understanding the Risks Involved When Having Surgery

Which Treatment Is Best for You?

Determining whether a procedure or surgery is right for you depends upon conditions. The decision will be between you and your healthcare provider, and all of your circumstances need to be taken into account.

Procedures are less invasive and can be used to evaluate, diagnose, and treat some conditions. Surgery is more invasive and can make significant changes to the body by removing or repairing tissue, bone, and organs.

The American College of Surgeons encourages patients to ask their surgeons questions if the information is not clear. It can be helpful to write down questions and the healthcare provider's answers.

Can Procedures and Surgery Be Used Together?

Procedures and surgeries are two distinct medical techniques. However, they can be used together in various situations. A patient may undergo a procedure to help evaluate and diagnose a condition. Depending on the results of the procedure, the patient may need surgery to treat the condition.

A healthcare provider will determine if using both a procedure and surgery is the best route to take.

Coping With the Side Effects

Procedural and surgical side effects can be mild to severe. The first step in dealing with any side effects is to contact a healthcare provider. They will be able to evaluate the seriousness of the side effects and determine the best level of care.

Some side effects are mild and can be managed at home. Take any prescribed medication and follow postoperative or procedural instructions. These instructions may include not driving or avoiding the lifting of heavy objects.


Procedures and surgery are two types of medical interventions used to diagnose, treat, or evaluate a condition or illness. A procedure tends to be less invasive and usually does not involve an incision. Surgery is more invasive and does involve an incision in the skin.

After careful consideration, a healthcare provider will determine if a procedure or surgery is best suited for the patient.

A Word From VeryWell

The thought of undergoing a procedure or surgery can be very scary. One of the best things you can do is to learn as much as you can. Ask your healthcare provider questions about your condition and why a procedure or surgery is necessary. The more information you have, the better decisions you can make regarding your health.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between a procedure and surgery?

    A procedure is a medical intervention that tends to be minimally invasive and does not usually need a cut into the skin. Surgery is a more invasive medical intervention, and it does require a cut into the skin. Both interventions can diagnose, evaluate, or treat a medical condition or illness.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Merriam-Webster. Procedure.

  2. MedlinePlus. Health checkup.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Upper GI endoscopy.

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Colonoscopy.

  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Anesthesia options, risks, and side effects.

  6. American Cancer Society. Understanding radiation risks from imaging tests.

  7. American Medical Association. Surgery.

  8. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Common surgical procedures.

  9. Johns Hopkins Medicine. After surgery: discomforts and complications.

  10. American College of Surgeons. Informed consent.

By Patty Weasler, RN, BSN
Patty is a registered nurse with over a decade of experience in pediatric critical care. Her passion is writing health and wellness content that anyone can understand and use.