General surgeons diagnose and treat conditions that need surgery. They require extensive knowledge about all areas of the body. Trauma surgeons train in general surgery but specialize in trauma.

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The prospect of surgery can be scary. If you or a loved one has an accident, an unanticipated surgery to repair damage may be necessary. In other instances, you may have the opportunity to plan for a needed surgery.

Either way, the thought of going “under the knife” may not be pleasant. Confidence in your surgeon can help alleviate anxiety and provide you with confidence.

The type of surgery you need will determine the best kind of surgeon for you. There are many types of surgical specialties. Each requires extensive and often highly specialized training.

This article explains the differences between general surgeons and trauma surgeons.

As the name implies, general surgeons have a broad-based knowledge of conditions requiring surgery and the procedures needed for each.

General surgeons train to perform various surgical procedures using various instruments, including scalpels, scissors, and biopsy punches.

Some surgeons specialize in a specific condition (such as cancer) or body area (like the brain). But general surgeons need to have a broader knowledge of many conditions and the whole body.

According to the American Board of Surgery, general surgeons need to have extensive knowledge about conditions that affect these areas of your body:

  • gastrointestinal tract
  • breasts
  • skin
  • soft tissue
  • endocrine system
  • head and neck

They’re also required to study these areas of surgical practice:

  • critical care
  • oncology
  • trauma

Procedures that general surgeons perform include:

In addition to surgery, general surgeons train in pre- and post-surgical care. This includes treating and managing any complications that could occur after surgery.

Trauma surgeons train in both general surgery and trauma surgery. Trauma surgeons specialize in treating medical emergencies and repairing injuries caused by blunt force or penetrating trauma. Trauma surgeons often work on people who arrive at emergency departments (ED) after accidents.

A trauma surgeon may be the sole surgeon during a procedure. They may also be part of a surgical team. The makeup of the team will depend on what the injuries are. In many cases, the team may also include a general surgeon.

Depending on the trauma, the surgical team may need to work on multiple parts of your body during a single session. This could include internal organs, bones, and soft tissues. In these cases, the trauma surgeon will often take the lead in prioritizing the order in which the team treats your injuries.

In the ED, trauma surgeons diagnose conditions, order tests, and prescribe pre- and post-surgical medication. They often remain in charge of patient care during recovery and rehabilitation after surgery.

Conditions trauma surgeons treat include:

Trauma surgeons typically work in designated trauma centers. State authorities decide which hospitals serve as trauma centers. The American College of Surgeons verifies these centers based on the availability of surgeons and equipment necessary to perform certain procedures.

Emergencies are unpredictable. But many accidents and other types of emergencies occur at night. Trauma surgeons often need to work long or overnight shifts to accommodate lengthy or unexpected surgeries.

General surgeons work in hospitals, clinics, and ambulatory care settings. They may also have private medical offices where their patients can visit for consultations and follow-ups.

General surgeons may also work on staff or as consultants in nonclinical settings. These include insurance agencies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies at the state or federal level.

All surgeons require a bachelor’s degree and a medical degree (MD or DO).

After graduating from medical school, potential surgeons enter a general surgery residency for a minimum of 5 years. They may need an additional 2-year research period or more years of training based on their area of interest.

After a residency program, surgeons participate in a fellowship for 1 or 2 years in most cases. Trauma surgeons often complete their fellowships in traumatology, emergency surgery, or critical surgical care.

All surgeons must become licensed and certified before operating on patients without supervision.

In the United States, each state awards its own licenses to practice medicine. Surgeons and doctors of all types need to obtain a license for each state in which they practice. States may waive that requirement in emergencies that require surgical intervention.

But they must first pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). In addition to the USMLE, surgeons must complete additional exams to obtain Certification in General Surgery from the American Board of Surgery (ABS).

General surgeons who wish to specialize in trauma surgery must obtain a subspecialty certificate in Surgical Critical Care from the ABS.

How to look up your surgeon’s certification

You can check a physician’s surgical certification using the ABS’s Check a Certification online tool.

You can also call ABS at 215-568-4000 to obtain a verbal verification of your surgeon’s licensure and certification status.

Was this helpful?

General and trauma surgeons are highly specialized medical doctors who undergo rigorous surgical training.

General surgeons have experience performing a wide range of surgical procedures.

Trauma surgeons undergo additional training and certification to perform emergency, lifesaving surgeries that include blunt force and penetrative trauma.

Surgery can be stressful and scary but is often needed to cure conditions or save lives. If time allows, make sure the surgeon you choose is experienced and highly qualified to perform the procedure that you or your loved one requires.