It is difficult to find a workplace that matches the intensity of the operating room. On top of that, the satisfaction that a surgeon feels after getting a patient back on his or her feet, and on the road to a complete recovery, is difficult to match too. Few career paths offer the same personal and professional satisfaction as that of a surgeon.
If you’ve been considering a career in medicine—specifically as a surgeon—the career outlook could not be brighter, both emotionally and in terms of stability. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median annual wage for surgeons in 2019 came in over $200,000, with some salaries surpassing $250,000. And the demand for specialized surgeons is significant according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), with a projected shortage of 23,000 surgeons in the US by 2032.
So if you're committed to working your way toward becoming a surgeon, good news: you've made a solid choice. But before you launch your career, there are still plenty of considerations that you have to make, among them being the type of surgeon you’d like to become.
To help you weigh your options, we compiled a list that examines some of the most common surgical specialties as outlined by the American College of Surgeons. This will give you a glimpse of the ailments and scope of work that each specialty addresses, as well as how each surgeon makes a profound difference in the lives of their patients on an everyday basis.
Examining 13 significant surgical specialties
When a patient requires surgery, they can’t necessarily just go to any surgeon. All surgeons develop core knowledge of anatomy, physiology, metabolism, immunology, pathology, wound healing, shock and resuscitation, intensive care, and more. But the complexities of the human body require more specific study, which is why there are specific surgical specialties physicians can devote their careers to.
So before you start your MD training, familiarize yourself with the differences between these types of surgeons to better understand your options.
1. General surgeon
Like the name implies, a general surgeon’s work involves a broad range of conditions that can affect almost any area of the body.
• Duties: Establishes diagnosis and provides preoperative, operative and post-operative care. Responsible for the comprehensive management of trauma victims and critically ill patients.
• Common conditions addressed: Conditions related to the head and neck, breast, skin, soft tissues, abdominal wall, extremities, and gastrointestinal, vascular, and endocrine systems.
2. Colon and rectal surgeon
When a patient is facing issues of the intestinal tract, colon, rectum, anal canal, perianal area, he or she will likely be referred to a colon and rectal surgeon. While primarily focused on those areas of the body, surgeons in this field also deal with other organs and tissues including the liver, urinary and female reproductive systems.
• Duties: Consults and diagnoses patients in office, and treats patients experiencing problems of the intestine and colon. Performs operations, including abdominal surgical procedures, to address these problems. This may include robotic surgery.
• Common conditions addressed: Hemorrhoids, fissures, abscesses, fistulae, conditions of the bowel lining, cancer, polyps, inflammatory conditions, chronic ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and diverticulitis.
Commonly known as a “brain surgeon,” a neurosurgeon handles disorders and illnesses related to the central, peripheral, and autonomic nervous systems, including their supporting structures and vascular supply.
• Duties: Diagnoses and treats patients through surgical procedures. Works with emerging technologies like computer-based neuro-navigation, spinal biomechanics and instrumentation, gene therapy, and catheter-driven endovascular techniques. Also handles surgical emergencies such as bleeding within the brain and sudden compression of the spinal cord.
• Common conditions addressed: Brain tumors, intracranial aneurysms, head injuries, and disorders affecting the spine, including spinal canal stenosis, herniated discs, tumors, fractures, and spinal deformities.
• Subspecialties: Cerebrovascular neurosurgery, spinal surgery, pediatric neurosurgery, complex seizure disorders, and functional surgery (movement disorders).
4. Obstetrician and gynecologist
Typically coupled into one comprehensive field, an obstetrician and gynecologist (OB/GYN) technically operates in two areas of expertise. Obstetrics refers to physicians who work with pregnant patients, deliver babies, and care for them just after the baby is born. The gynecologist primarily treats conditions of the female reproductive system.
• Duties: Provides medical and surgical care to treat conditions that affect the female reproductive system. Consults patients and other physicians on health maintenance and preventive care for women.
• Common conditions addressed: Issues related to pregnancy, fertility, menstruation and menopause, family planning, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and infections (STIs), ovarian cysts, breast disorders, pelvic inflammatory diseases, and congenital abnormalities of the female reproductive tract.
• Subspecialties: Urogynecology, pelviscopy, adolescent/pediatric gynecology, infectious diseases, maternal-fetal medicine (care for and consult on patients with high-risk pregnancies), reproductive endocrinologists (infertility, assisted reproduction), gynecologic oncology (cancers that affect the female reproductive system).
A doctor who many would refer to as an “eye doctor” is known clinically as an ophthalmologist. These medical professionals handle comprehensive care for the eyes and vision.
• Duties: Diagnoses and treats all eye and visual problems. Provides vision services such as glasses and contact lenses. Performs surgical procedures for treatment.
• Common conditions addressed: Amblyopia (“lazy eye”), astigmatism, cataracts, conjunctivitis (“pink eye”), corneal dystrophies, dry eye, eye cancer, glaucoma, macular degeneration, myopia (“nearsightedness”), retinal detachment, strabismus and uveitis.
• Subspecialties: Anterior segment surgery, cataracts and refractive surgery, cornea and external diseases, glaucoma, neuro-ophthalmology, ocular oncology, oculoplastics and orbit surgery, ophthalmic pathology, pediatric ophthalmology, uveitis and immunology, vitreo-retinal surgery.
6. Oral and maxillofacial surgeon
Professionals who work at the intersection of medicine and dentistry are commonly known as oral surgeons. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons handle issues related to the head, neck, face, jaw, and hard and soft tissues of the oral and maxillofacial region (jaw, cheek bone, nasal and facial structures).
• Duties: Diagnoses, consults, and treats patients in office. Administers anesthesia and performs operations.
• Common conditions addressed: Extracting wisdom teeth, misaligned jaws, tumors and cysts in the jaw and mouth, cleft palate, and dental implant surgery.
• Subspecialties: Head and neck cancer, craniofacial facial deformity, oral medicine, craniofacial trauma, and cosmetic surgery.
7. Orthopaedic surgeon
Orthopaedic surgeons handle the diagnosis and treatment of issues of the musculoskeletal system, including bones, joints, muscles, associated nerves, arteries, and overlying skin.
• Duties: Treats patients through surgical procedures as well as through the use of braces, casts, splints, or physical therapy.
• Common conditions addressed: Conditions that may be present at birth or develop during the lifetime, including congenital deformities, trauma, infections, tumors, degenerative conditions, and metabolic disturbances. May treat secondary muscular issues in patients with central or peripheral nervous system lesions like cerebral palsy, paraplegia, or stroke.
• Subspecialties: Hand surgery, sports medicine, pediatric orthopaedics, spine surgery, foot and ankle orthopaedics, joint replacement, trauma surgery, and oncology.
Commonly known as “head and neck” doctors, otolaryngologists address conditions related to the ears, nose, throat, and related structures (respiratory and upper alimentary systems).
• Duties: Performs hearing tests, administers radiotherapy, performs cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, handles procedures that remove polyps, corrects cleft palates, and removes tumors. Refers patients to other medical specialists related to communication sciences, like audiologists, speech-language pathologists, and specialists in the chemical senses.
• Common conditions addressed: Hearing loss, balance disorders, ringing in the ears, sinus and nasal cavity disorders, snoring, deviated septum, allergies, smell and taste disorders, migraine headaches, and disorders of the throat, esophagus and larynx.
• Subspecialties: Otology and neurology, laryngology, facial reconstructive and plastic surgery, and sleep disorders.
9. Pediatric surgeon
Pediatric surgeons specialize in diagnosing, treating, and providing post-operative care for children—from the newborn stage through the teenage years. Some form of pediatric specialty can also usually be found in other surgical professions due to the unique and complex nature of diseases and illnesses affecting children.
• Duties: Collaborates with other neonatologists, pediatricians, and family physicians to determine if surgery is the best treatment option for the child.
• Common conditions addressed: Birth defects, fetal surgery (corrective surgery before a baby is born), traumatic injuries, and malignant and benign tumors.
• Subspecialties: Neonatal, prenatal, trauma, and pediatric oncology.
10. Plastic and maxillofacial surgeon
Many people think of plastic surgeons as exclusively focused on cosmetic surgeries, but this surgical specialty entails much more. They handle the repair, replacement, and reconstruction of form and function defects of the body. This can include the musculoskeletal system, craniofacial structures, oropharynx, upper and lower limbs, breast, and external genitalia.
• Duties: Conducts surgical procedures that involve transfer of skin flaps, transplantation of tissues, and replantation of structures. Manages complex wounds and leverages knowledge in surgical design, surgical diagnosis, surgical and artistic anatomy, and more.
• Common conditions addressed: Congenital deformities, nose reshaping, breast augmentation for cosmetic purposes or following mastectomy, reconstructive surgery for individuals who have sustained burns, scars, or trauma to the face, hands and lower limbs, and removal of excess skin or body fat.
• Subspecialties: Cranio-maxillofacial surgery, microvascular surgery, hand surgery, and cosmetic surgery.
11. Thoracic surgeon
A thoracic surgeon is more commonly known as a “heart surgeon.” Professionals in this field handle pathological conditions and injuries within the chest, including the coronary artery, lung, esophagus, chest wall, great vessels and heart valves, mediastinum, diaphragm, and management of the airway.
• Duties: Consults and diagnoses patients experiencing intrathoracic abnormalities, performs operations and uses processes and systems like extracorporeal circulation, cardiac assist devices, cardiac dysrhythmia management, pleural drainage, respiratory support systems, endoscopy, and more.
• Common conditions addressed: Congenital anomalies of the chest, tumors of the mediastinum, diseases of the diaphragm, lung cancer, benign diseases and tumors of the lung, esophageal cancer, chest reconstruction after major trauma or surgery, mesothelioma, and lung transplants.
• Subspecialties: Adult cardiac surgery, congenital or pediatric heart surgery, and general thoracic surgery.
A urologist addresses conditions of the adrenal gland and the genitourinary (reproductive and urinary) system. He or she typically operates on the kidneys, ureters, bladder, prostate, urethra, and testes.
• Duties: Treats patients through in-office practice, minimally-invasive endoscopies, and major open surgical procedures.
• Common conditions addressed: Nephrolithiasis (kidney stones), incontinence, cystoscopies, prostate biopsies, vasectomies, nephrectomy, transurethral resection of prostate (TURP).
• Subspecialties: urologic oncology, pediatric urology, stone disease, infertility, impotence, female urology, and laparoscopy.
13. Vascular surgeon
When a patient has a disease or illness related specifically to arteries and veins, he or she will likely be referred to a vascular surgeon. Vascular surgeons focus specifically on the circulatory system.
• Duties: Consults, diagnoses, and treats patients with complex blood or circulatory diseases or illnesses. Operates in both open, complicated surgeries as well as minimally-invasive endovascular procedures. May also treat patients outside of surgical means, like through medication or exercise regimens.
• Common conditions addressed: Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), stroke, aneurysms, blood clots as well as the after effects of any arterial conditions or conditions of the vascular system.
Which surgery specialties interest you?
You don't have to come to a decision in a moment's notice. As you dive into your courses and labs in medical school, and then gain exposure to healthcare delivery in various departments in your clinical rotations, you will have ample opportunity to see what interests you. Also, it's helpful to connect with practicing professionals to gain insight into the pros and cons of each pathway.
Still unsure about whether you have what it takes to be a surgeon? You can learn more about the field in general from surgeons themselves by reading our blog post, “8 Signs You Should Consider Becoming a Surgeon.”
Have dreams of becoming a doctor?Learn More