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What is the Difference Between a Surgery and a Procedure?

By F. Ruiz
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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While the terms “surgery” and “procedure” are often used interchangeably in everyday speech, they do not actually mean the same thing. The key difference between a surgery and a procedure is the need for an incision. Making an incision, or cutting into the skin to gain access to the body’s deeper tissues or organs, is a defining characteristic of surgery. If a medical outcome is reached without making a break to the skin, then surgery has not usually been performed.

Confusion often arises concerning the difference between a surgery and a procedure because the two are closely related. Technically speaking, a surgery is a specific type of procedure. A procedure is a broad general term that refers to any series of pre-defined steps that should be followed to achieve a desired result. Therefore, a “surgical procedure” is synonymous with a “surgery.” For the sake of clarity, procedures that do not fall under the classification of surgery are sometimes referred to as “non-surgical procedures.”

While the technical definitions continue to hold true for the most part, the traditional lines separating a surgery and a procedure are beginning to blur somewhat in the face of continuing technological advances. With developments in modern surgical tools, smaller and smaller incisions are needed for many surgeries. Minimally invasive surgeries done with laparoscopes, for instance, call for much smaller incisions than their more invasive alternatives. Smaller incisions lead to faster recovery times and also decrease the risk of infection. These changes require many people to readjust their mental concepts surrounding what a surgery and a procedure are; some might expect surgeries to have longer recovery times than procedures, but that assumption is not always correct.

With the advent of new technologies such as lasers, the definition of “cutting” has also expanded. In the past, cutting could only be achieved with traditional surgical instruments such as scalpels. Today, lasers can perform many of the same functions. As a general rule, when lasers are used in a similar manner to standard surgical instruments, any such uses are considered surgical ones. So, LASIK eye surgery, in which a laser is used to cut into eye tissue, qualifies as surgery.

In contrast, non-invasive laser treatments are often, but not always, viewed as surgery. One example is laser resurfacing, in which a laser is used to remove upper layers of the skin. While no major incisions are made and the lasers don’t penetrate deep into the body, several characteristics of laser resurfacing lead many professionals to classify it as surgery anyway. These characteristics include the types of lasers involved, the use of anesthesia, and the surface area covered.

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Discussion Comments
By goldenmist — On May 03, 2011

I'm one of those people that makes the mistake of using "surgery" and "procedure" interchangeably in everyday speech. Thanks for the clarification.

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