JAANUU » How to Become an Operating Room (OR) Nurse

How to Become an Operating Room (OR) Nurse

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Are you a stellar problem-solver who wants to make a difference in the world by helping save lives? Do you love the teal hue of surgical scrubs? If so, a nursing career in the operating room may be for you. 

Of course, many other factors play into deciding whether to become an OR nurse. The operating theater is one of the most nuanced settings in the healthcare field. That means surgical nurses must possess specialized skills that keep patients comfortable and safe to ensure proper recovery. 

Ready to take on the challenge and responsibility of becoming an OR nurse? If so, it’s time to learn what kind of nursing education you’ll need, what you’ll do on a day-to-day basis and which skills will make you a standout professional in your field (and we know you will be!).

What is an operating room nurse?

An OR nurse, also known as a surgical or perioperative nurse, works right where you probably imagine—in the operating room. These nurses work directly with surgical patients before, during and after surgery. When the surgeon says “scalpel, please,” it’s the OR nurse who hands it to them. 

Surgical nurses are also liaisons for the medical staff, communicating information to patients and their families. OR nurses form an essential part of a surgical team, along with surgeons, anesthesiologists, technicians, physician assistants and other nurses, such as nurse anesthetists.

What do operating nurses do?

OR nurses participate in the surgical procedure, which can be broken down into three phases: pre-op, intra-op and post-op. How they participate in these phases depends on their role (as either a scrub nurse or a circulating nurse). Below, we’ll break down the difference between the two roles and the responsibilities that surgical nurses fulfill. 


The different responsibilities of an OR nurse

  • Pre-op: In this phase, a surgical nurse assesses the patient to prepare them for their operation. The nurse looks at the patient’s physical and psychological states.  
  • Intra-op: During surgery, OR nurses continue to monitor the patient’s conditions and maintain their privacy and safety, ensuring that the wound is not becoming infected. 
  • Post-op: This phase is all about the patient’s recovery. An OR nurse might keep an eye on IVs, assess the patient’s circulation and ensure they’re safely on the track.

Scrub nurse vs. circulating nurse

A scrub nurse is a bit different than an RN. In OR nursing, a scrub nurse is responsible for sterilizing and preparing the OR before a surgery. They set up tools and hand them to the surgeon during the operation. 

A circulating nurse performs checks and balances within the operating theater, ensuring that protocols are followed, the surgeon takes breaks when necessary and the right tools are on hand. Think of this role as a less technical one that’s more focused on patient advocacy.

How to become an OR nurse

Set up a study sanctuary for yourself because, to become an OR nurse, you’ll be spending a lot of quality time with your textbooks. Here are the basics of the surgical nurse schooling route:

Get your degree 

The base education requirement for any nursing career is a college degree in the field. To become a surgical nurse, you can earn an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited nursing program. Many employers prefer a bachelor’s degree, and we recommend it too. Should you change your mind about your nursing specialty later in your career, a BSN degree is a more flexible base for switching to another role.

(And while you’re a nursing student, be sure to take advantage of our student discount!) 

Get licensed 

Regardless of their specialization, all registered nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) before obtaining a nursing license from their state that allows them to legally practice. 

Get experience

Find a role in surgical nursing to get the right kind of hands-on training. Future employers will look for this clinical experience before hiring you. In fact, they may require that you’ve worked a certain amount of time in a surgical environment and gained experience with both regular life support and advanced cardiac life support. 

Get certified

Getting certified isn’t a “must,” but we recommend it as many employers will look for the Certified Perioperative Nurse Credential (CNOR) on an aspiring OR nurse’s resume. 

What does it take to be a successful OR nurse?


All nursing roles require stamina, empathy, medical knowledge and clinical skills, but what are the most important “soft skills” for an OR nurse? In this role, you’ll need to demonstrate,

  • Attention to detail
  • Resiliency
  • Flexibility
  • Ability to work in a fast-paced environment
  • Strong communication skills

OR nurse FAQs

Are surgical nurses the same as OR nurses?

Yes, as we mentioned above, the two terms are used interchangeably. You can also refer to OR nurses as perioperative nurses. 

What is the average salary of an OR nurse?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average operating room nurse’s annual salary is approximately $78,000. 

Where do OR nurses work?

While the obvious answer to this question may be “operating rooms,” OR nurses can also work in a number of specialized environments outside the hospital. You can also find perioperative nurses in cancer centers, surgical centers and mobile surgery units. 

Time to scrub in for work in the operating theater? Come to us for surgical scrubs, surgical caps and moral support throughout your nursing career. You’ve got this! 

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