What You Need to Know About Surgery

When and Why Do Surgeons Operate?

Surgeons performing open
Surgeons performing open heart surgery in an operation room. Thierry Dosogne/Getty Images

Surgery is the specialty of medicine that treats diseases and disorders by cutting, removing or changing the body with an operative procedure that opens the body for therapy.  This definition is slowly changing, as new procedures do not require an opening into the body to perform procedures.  

What's the Difference Between an Operation and Surgery?

The term operation is a synonym for surgery. "Operation" is usually considered to be a more casual term.

Some individuals may say "I need to have an operation" and others will say "I'm planning to have surgery." Both terms are correct.

What Surgery Means

Surgery simply means opening the human body and cutting tissues to treat problems that arise in the body.  This may mean removing tissue, altering tissue or simply changing the way the human body works  with treatments performed inside the body, typically under anesthesia.

Surgery can mean a minor outpatient procedure that take hours or days for a full recovery (such as a carpal tunnel release), or may be a major procedure that treats life-threatening issues, such as a heart transplant.

When Surgery Is Performed

Surgery carries certain risks, including reactions to anesthesia and infection. As a result, it is usually recommended only when other, less risky options have proven to be unsuccessful. There are, however, many situations in which surgery is elective, meaning that the patient chooses surgery even though it is not necessary to alleviate or cure a disease.

Emergency or urgent surgeries are performed in emergencies or when a disease or injury cannot be otherwise treated. Examples of necessary surgeries include:

  • Surgical repair of a complex broken limb
  • Removal of malfunctioning body parts (removal of the appendix, gallbladder, kidney stones, etc.)
  • Removal of foreign objects (bullets or shrapnel, for example)
  • Caesarean section for a risky or complicated birth

Elective surgeries are performed at a time selected by patient and surgeon, for a variety of reasons. Elective surgery may be cosmetic (plastic surgery), medically desirable (fusing bones to relieve pain from a herniated disk), or medically necessary (removal of a cancerous tumor).

Who Performs Surgery

Surgery is performed by a surgeon, a physician who has undergone extensive training including medical school, a general surgery residency five years in length, and may include further training in a specialty that may last several years.  There are many surgical specialties providing treatment in all areas of the human body including the heart, brain, organs, tissues, and bones.

Types of Surgery

Until recently, all surgery involved cutting a patient open with a scalpel in order to remove, repair, or replace something inside the body. Over the last few decades, however, new types of surgery have been developed. These are less invasive, meaning there is less cutting required. Less cutting reduces the pain, risk, and potential side effects related to surgery.

Examples of less invasive surgical techniques include:

  • Laparoscopy (and micro-laparoscopy) involves surgery using miniaturized instruments. The surgeon cuts only a tiny hole to introduce the instruments and guides the instruments using a laparoscope (something like a telescope with a light).
  • NOTES procedures, which allow the surgeon to conduct surgery by using existing "natural orifices" in the body.

Sources:

Arulampalam, T., Paterson-Brown, A. et al. Natural orifice transluminal endoscopic surgery. Annals of The Royal College of Surgeons of England, 91(6), 456–459. 2009.

Medline Plus. Surgery. US National Library of Medicine. Web. 2017.

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