Surgery is the process of using medical instruments and techniques to correct or treat any number of issues, and typically involves incisions being made to open the body up. There are hundreds of different types of surgeries and different methods for performing these procedures. In many cases, an anaesthesiologist will put the patient to sleep during the operation. Increasingly, though, some patients prefer to be awake for certain surgeries, with local anaesthesia used to numb the area being operated on.

Surgical procedures can take as little as a half hour, while more complex surgeries can take a full day or more. Surgeons spend years studying their practice and training at medical school, and during each operation, a full team of medical professionals is on hand to assist.

With any type of surgery, there is a certain degree risk to the patient. Some patients are at greater risk of experiencing complications and side effects than others, due to factors such as smoking, obesity, and medical history. Before undergoing any surgery, talk to your doctor to ensure you understand what the procedure will involve and any potential risks.

Preparing to Have Surgery

If you have never had surgery, you might be concerned about what to expect and how to prepare beforehand. Here are a few tips and bits of information to help you:

Follow your doctor’s instructions: If your surgeon gave you any specific instructions, be sure to follow them as closely as possible. This may include taking (or not taking) certain medications, exercises, or avoiding certain foods and drinks. If you are not able to follow a particular instruction, it is important to talk with them before the surgery about it so they can assess any potential complications.

Discuss allergies with your anesthesiologist: Certain anesthetics can trigger allergic responses (and other side effects), including everything from hives to anaphylactic shock. If you are allergic to anything – medicines, foods, or even latex – it is critical to let your anesthesiologist know. They will give you a special-color band that identifies your allergy, so that everyone on your surgical team will be aware and avoid any medicines or products that could cause a reaction.

Avoid eating and drinking for 8 hours before: Surgeries should only be performed when the patient has an empty stomach. This is because anesthetics administered during the surgery could cause contents of the stomach to be expelled, finding their way into the esophagus or lungs (known as “aspiration”). In most cases, the nurse or other medical professional who contacts you the day before will remind you not to eat or drink prior to the operation.

Investigate costs and insurance coverage: Unless you are having an emergency operation – in which case there is no time to worry about money – you should take time to talk with the hospital or medical center’s financial department. In many cases, they may be able to reduce costs or point you to resources for financial help. Also, if you have medical insurance, it is also a good idea to talk with a representative from the insurance company to make sure you understand what will be covered and what will you will have to pay for out of pocket. Doing this ahead of time will help avoid “sticker shock” when you get a bill or insurance statement later.

Ask every question you can think of: Mental preparation for surgery is as important as physical preparation. If your mind is weighed down by questions about how the surgery is performed, what it is attempting to accomplish, or anything else related to your health condition, be sure to talk with your doctor or someone else who can explain it to you. Many hospitals and medical centers have onsite social workers and psychologists who can help you understand what to expect before, during, and after your surgery.

In short, when preparing for surgery, don’t hesitate to speak up and let your thoughts, opinions, concerns, and questions be known.

Risk Factors for Surgery

Some patients are more likely to experience complications during surgery than others. Risk factors relate to a patient’s medical history and lifestyle choices. Common risk factors include:

  • You have previously had a stroke
  • You have previously had a heart attack
  • You are allergic to anesthesia
  • You have a lung condition
  • You are overweight or obese
  • You have a neurological disorder
  • You have heart disease
  • You have high blood pressure
  • You have diabetes
  • You have kidney problems
  • You are a smoker
  • You have a history of alcohol and/or drug abuse

Before any elective surgery, talk to your doctor about the risks to decide whether surgery is right for you.

Common Side Effects and Complications of Surgery

With any type of surgery, there is a potential for things to go wrong. Some patients experience mild to severe complications and side effects during or after surgery. Before undergoing surgery, it’s important to speak to your medical team to ensure you understand the risks.

Complications and side effects that may occur include:

If you are given anaesthesia during surgery, it’s likely you’ll feel a little strange for a few days after it wears off. The most common side effects of anaesthesia are constipation and nausea. You may also experience muscle aches, a sore throat, and chills.

Post-Operative Care

After an operation, you will spend some time in the hospital or medical center so your surgical team can evaluate the success of the procedure and reduce the likelihood of adverse effects. The length of time you will spend in post-operative care depends on the type and severity of the procedure, as well as any complications that may have arisen during the surgery.

Even after you are released, your doctor may prescribe one or more medications to help with your post-operative care. The most common after-surgery prescriptions include:

It is important to take these medications only as prescribed, since taking them too often could result in addiction (in the case of opioids) or other harmful side effects, such as severe bleeding (for blood thinners).

Another important part of post-operative care is making sure you follow a healthy diet. Talk with your doctor about what you should and should not eat or drink, especially during the first 24 hours after an operation. Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and unnecessary medications is highly encouraged.

While recovering from your surgery at home, some pain and discomfort are to be expected. Be sure to watch for any signs of infection and contact your doctor immediately if you experience any severe or unusual side effects after your surgery.

Types of Surgery

Surgery can be categorized in two primary ways:

  • Surgical field (what it treats)
  • The type of operation (tools, techniques and purpose)

Surgical Fields

Surgery is used to treat a wide range of injuries, illnesses, and conditions, some of which may be life-threatening.

Common Health Conditions Treated by Surgery

Surgeons most commonly specialize in a particular field of surgery corresponding to a part or area of the body. Rather than treating specific diseases and conditions, they will treat any health problem that affects that area of the body, often consulting with doctors who are specialists in other fields when the problem extends beyond their specific area of expertise.

General Surgery

While many surgeons specialize in a particular field, general surgeons are trained to perform operations almost anywhere on the body. They can treat a wide variety of diseases and types of trauma. Specifically, they are knowledgeable about conditions affecting the digestive tract, abdomen, endocrine system, breast, skin, and soft tissue. General surgeons can diagnose patients, operate, and provide postoperative care. A general surgeon may also help patients who are terminally ill.

Obstetrics and Gynecology

Obstetrics and gynecology are related to pregnancy and female reproductive health. Specialists are trained to help deliver babies, ensure a healthy pregnancy, and treat conditions affecting the female reproductive organs. Some physicians trained in obstetrics and gynecology may further specialize in areas such as menopausal health, infertility treatment, and family planning.

Orthopedic Surgery

An orthopedic surgeon specializes in treating conditions and injuries that affect the musculoskeletal system, such as osteoarthritis, bone fractures, ruptured discs, and sports injuries. Orthopedic surgery is often used to treat injuries from trauma, degenerative conditions, and growth abnormalities.

Cardiovascular Surgery

Cardiovascular surgeons treat conditions affecting the cardiovascular system, which includes the heart and blood vessels. Common types of cardiovascular surgery include coronary bypass surgery, heart valve replacement or repair, and heart transplants. Cardiovascular surgeons may operate on patients with heart disease, heart defects, and similar conditions.


Neurology is concerned with disorders affecting the nervous system. Neurosurgeons are trained to diagnose and treat conditions like strokes, herniated discs, and spinal fractures.


Urologists treat disorders of the adrenal gland and genitourinary system, which encompasses the reproductive organs and the urinary tract. Urologic surgery is used to treat conditions like kidney stones, stress incontinence, and prostate cancer.

Pediatric Surgery

Pediatric surgeons specifically diagnose and treat conditions in children, from birth right through to the teenage years. This can include correcting birth defects like spina bifida, treating trauma injuries sustained in an accident, and treating cancer.

Colon and Rectal Surgery

Colon and rectal surgeons specialize in treating diseases of the colon, rectum, intestinal tract, anal canal, and perineum, as well as other organs affected by an intestinal disease, such as the liver. They may use endoscopic procedures, which involve a small camera attached to a flexible tube, to look inside a patient to detect abnormalities or growths. You might be referred to a colon and rectal surgeon about conditions like hemorrhoids, Crohn’s disease, or colon cancer.

Plastic Surgery (Cosmetic Surgery)

Plastic surgery may be performed for reconstructive or aesthetic purposes, and is designed to improve the functioning and/or appearance of part of the body. Plastic surgeons may perform procedures such as breast reconstruction after a mastectomy, cleft lip or cleft palate surgery, and reconstructive burn surgery.

These are not the only surgical fields. If you require surgery, your doctor will refer you to a physician specializing in the appropriate field.

Types of Operations

Surgery can also be categorized by the type of operation performed. These categories are described by the techniques, tools, and timing used during the procedure, and individual surgeries often can fall under several categories.

Operation Types
Surgeries by Timing (Triage)
  • Emergency surgery – Operations that need to occur right away to save the patient’s life or part of their body.
  • Elective surgery – Corrects issues that are non-life-threatening and can be scheduled in advance, such as cosmetic surgeries or hip replacements.
  • Semi-elective Surgery – Between emergency and elective surgery, a semi-elective surgery can be postponed for a short time but is necessary to keep the patient alive in the long term, such as a kidney or other organ transplant.
Surgeries by Purpose
  • Diagnostic Surgery – Used to assess a patient’s condition and determine specific nature of a disease, such as taking a tumor biopsy to see if it is cancerous.
  • Exploratory Surgery – Similar to diagnostic surgery, this is when the underlying cause of presenting symptoms is not known, and the doctor needs to see inside the body to learn more.
  • Therapeutic Surgery – Treat illnesses or diseases that are already diagnosed.
  • Cosmetic Surgery – Sometimes referred to as “plastic surgery,” cosmetic surgery improves the appearance of body parts. While these may not be required for physical health, cosmetic surgery can help improve mental health, especially in the case of disfigurement or deformity.
Surgeries by Procedure
  • Amputation – Removal of a limb or digit, such as an arm, leg or foot.
  • Resection – Removal of something within the body, such as an organ, blood clot, or tumor.
  • Replantation – Reattachment of a severed body part, usually after an accident of some kind.
  • Reconstruction – Repair of damaged structures, such as facial reconstruction.
  • Transplant – Replacement of organs or body parts using donated parts or animal organs.
Surgeries by Invasiveness
  • Minimally-Invasive Surgery – Uses small cuts to perform the surgery, such as laparoscopic procedures.
  • Open Surgery – Invasive surgical techniques that require part of the body to be opened up to access the area to be treated or explored.
Surgeries by Body Part/Area
Surgical terms often include a prefix that indicates the body part or area where the operation is to occur. Here are some of the most common:

  • Angio- refers to blood vessels, such as angioplasty (bypass surgery)
  • Arthr- refers to the joints, such as arthroscopy (minimally invasive joint surgery) or arthroplasty (joint reconstruction)
  • Cranio- refers to the skull, such as craniotomy (open surgery used to repair an aneurysm, remove a tumor or drain fluid)
  • Colono- refers to the large intestine or colon, such as a colonoscopy (physical examination of the lower bowels) or colectomy (removal of part of the large intestine, usually due to cancer)
  • Colpo- refers to the vagina, such as colposcopy (close examination of the cervix) or colpo-wrap (tightening of the bladder neck to treat incontinence)
  • Cysto- refers to the bladder, such as cystoscopy (inspection of the bladder and urethra)
  • Gastr- refers to stomach, such as gastric bypass surgery (a type of weight loss operation) or gastroscopy (viewing the gastrointestinal system to diagnose problems)
  • Hepat- refers to to the liver, gallbladder, and pancrease, such as hepatectomy (removal of all or part of the liver)
  • Hyster- refers to the uterus, such as hysterectomy (removal of the uterus)
  • Lapar- refers to the abdominal cavity, such as laparoscopic surgery (minimally invasive surgery to view or remove an abdominal organ)
  • Lobo- refers to a lobe of the brain, lungs or thyroid, such as lobectomy (removal of a lobe on one of these organs)
  • Mammo- and masto- refers to the breast, such as mastectomy (removal of all or part of the breast) or mammoplasty (breast reduction or implant)
  • Myo- refers to muscle tissue, such as myotomy (removal of muscle)
  • Nephro- refers to the kidney, such as nephrectomy (removal of a kidney) or nephrostomy (an incision in the kidney to allow urine drainage)
  • Oophor- refers to the ovary, such as oophorectomy (removal of one or both ovaries)
  • Orchi- refers to the testicles, such as orchiectomy (removal of one or both testicles)
  • Rhino- refers to the nose, such as rhinoplasty (reconstruction of the nose)
  • Thoraco- refers to the chest, such as thoracotomy (incision in the chest to reach internal organs)
  • Vas- refers to a duct, such as cardiovascular surgery (surgery of the blood vessels near the heart) or vasectomy (severing of the vas deferens to sterilize males)

Surgical Mistakes and Malpractice

440,000 people die from preventable harm at the hospital

Medical errors may be the third-leading cause of death in the U.S.Journal of Patient Safety

Surgeries are generally becoming safer, but there are still many people who die during or shortly after surgery due to complications and other factors. Some of these are unavoidable, and someone who is very ill or who has sustained severe trauma may not be able to recover. However, according to at least one report, at least between 210,000 and 440,000 people die every year due to preventable mistakes made at hospitals.

While this is only a fraction of the nearly 50 million surgeries that occur each year, it still shows a strong need for a patient’s bill of rights. Likewise, doctors who fail to follow the correct procedures and proven therapies should be held accountable for their negligence or malpractice.

If your loved one has suffered a preventable death during or after a surgery, find reputable legal representative who can help you understand your rights.