How to Become an Operating Room Nurse (OR Nursing Career Guide)

operating room nurse in surgery room assisting with surgery

OR Nurse Requirements At-a-Glance

What you’ll do: Oversee the care of patients before, during, and after surgery

Where you’ll work: Operating rooms and recovery rooms in hospitals and clinics

Degree you’ll need: Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Median salary: $81,220

Operating room (OR) nurses work as part of a team to care for patients before, during, and after surgery. Are you calm under pressure? Can you think fast?  If so, OR nursing might be right for you. These professionals are also often called “perioperative” nurses because they are involved in all patient care surrounding surgery. You’ll need at least an RN degree to get started.

“We have a workforce that’s looking for jobs that really make a difference in people’s lives, where they can have an impact, where it’s exciting, where they can be a hero, if you will,” says Judy Pins, an RN and president of Pfiedler Enterprises, a subsidiary of the Association of Operating Room Nurses, which offers highly specialized continuing education for surgeons and nurses. “They’re looking for jobs they can really bring the best part of themselves to it, and I think the OR offers that.”

Of the top 10 nursing specialties in 2021, OR nurses were the fourth highest in demand.

OR nurse vs. perioperative nurse

OR nurses are often referred to as perioperative nurses. These names mean the same thing. They are both terms for nurses that care for patients during the entire surgical process. Some institutions may use one name over the other, but their responsibilities are the same. An institution may also refer to OR nurses as scrub nurses, which are no different from OR/perioperative nurses. 

What Does an OR Nurse Do?

OR nurses spend most of their time caring directly for patients who undergo surgery, so surgical and medical skills are crucial. But perioperative nurses also have other responsibilities that require attention to detail, extensive knowledge of medical technology, the ability to stay cool under pressure, and compassion for patients and their families during what can be a stressful time.

“Perioperative nursing is rewarding in that most patients undergo a procedure that prolongs or improves the quality of their life,” says Thereza Ayad, DNP and assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. And this specialty is focused. “Only in perioperative nursing is the nurse able to care for one patient at a time,” says Ayad.

 As an OR nurse, you’ll typically be called on to:

  • Make sure medical equipment is working properly
  • Coordinate medical supplies for the OR and the patient
  • Manage patients throughout surgery
  • Monitor patient conditions, vital signs, and safety
  • Educate patients and family members about the procedure
  • Communicate patient needs to the rest of your team

The title “OR nurse” might be an umbrella for several jobs, depending on where you work and the size of your team. That means an OR nurse might have one or all of these roles:

Pre-op nurses prepare a patient for surgery. In this role, you’ll:

  • Take your patient’s health history
  • Record and monitor their vital signs
  • Ensure the patient is stable for surgery
  • Start any needed IVs
  • Complete any needed paperwork
  • Provide support and education to the patient and their family

Intra-op nurses are part of the surgical team in the operating room. In this role, you’ll:

  • Prepare the operating room and supplies for surgery
  • Assist the surgeon and keep instruments sterile
  • Ensure the room is sterile and controlled
  • Complete any needed paperwork

A post-op nurse provides patient care immediately following surgery. They’re are also sometimes called post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) nurses. As a PACU nurse, you’ll:

  • Monitor the patient as they wake from anesthesia
  • Watch the patient for any complications
  • Educate the patient about their recovery
  • Discharge the patient or transfer them to another unit

What’s the difference between an OR nurse and a trauma nurse?

OR nurses help patients before, during, and after surgery.

Trauma nurses help patients with severe injuries or other emergencies.

OR Nurse Education Requirements

You’ll need to complete an RN program before you can become a perioperative nurse. It can take anywhere from two to four years to earn your degree. You have two options for earning an RN license. There are advantages to each educational path:

Two-Year Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN)

Earning an ADN can be a fast-track option and let you work toward earning your BSN while you work.

Four-Year Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)

Going for your BSN from the start will take longer but can help you stand out to employers and possibly advance your career more quickly.

With all three, you’ll build a foundation in nursing by studying the basics:

  • Biology
  • Anatomy
  • Nursing theory
  • Nursing practice
  • Microbiology
  • Psychology

Can You Take Classes Online?

You can take some nursing classes online but not all. Most nursing degrees require hands-on, clinical training in a medical setting. This means you might be able to take a theory class online, but you’ll need to receive clinical instruction at a hospital or other medical facility.

You can take some nursing classes online, but all nursing degrees require hands-on, clinical training in a medical setting.

What Licensing Do You Need?

When you finish your coursework, the next step will be to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). The NCLEX-RN consists of a maximum of 265 questions. You’ll need to get at least 75 correct to pass. After that, you’ll be ready to apply for an RN license. Licensing regulations can vary by state, but they’ll generally require:

  • A criminal background check
  • A reference letter

You don’t need any additional certification for an entry-level OR nursing position—and many hospitals and clinics accept applications from recent graduates.

In many cases, however, earning a certification may position you to earn a higher salary and advance in your career. If you hold an active registered nurse (RN) license and meet other requirements, you can earn a Certified Perioperative Nurse (CNOR) certification through the Competency and Credentialing Institute.

After at least two years of perioperative experience, you’ll be eligible to become a certified perioperative nurse (CNOR). This specialized credential could help you advance your career.

What’s the Career and Salary Outlook for OR Nurses?

Nursing is growing quickly, and hospitals will be looking to fill OR positions. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts much faster-than-average growth in registered nursing jobs—5.6%—through 2031. OR nursing is unlikely to be replaced by automation or technology, making it a secure field now and in the future.

In fact, according to the Association of Perioperative Registered Nurses (AORN), the U.S. will need more than one million new RNs by 2021, especially in areas like perioperative nursing. Of the top 10 nursing specialties in 2021, OR nurses were the fourth highest in demand.

What’s the Salary Range for an OR Nurse?

According to the most recent (2020) figures from the BLS, the median salary for RNs is $81,220. Your salary will depend on your OR experience, location, and education. For example, you might earn a higher starting wage if you have a BSN, or if you work in a hospital with a large surgical unit. Here are RN salaries by state.

Registered Nurses

National data

Median Salary: $81,220

Projected job growth: 5.6%

10th Percentile: $61,250

25th Percentile: $66,680

75th Percentile: $101,100

90th Percentile: $129,400

Projected job growth: 5.6%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $63,090 $48,820 $82,760
Alaska $102,260 $80,950 $127,280
Arizona $82,330 $66,040 $105,520
Arkansas $64,130 $37,630 $83,700
California $132,660 $84,700 $177,670
Colorado $82,430 $66,130 $107,260
Connecticut $95,210 $71,050 $119,600
Delaware $82,230 $64,100 $101,110
District of Columbia $98,970 $66,260 $135,260
Florida $77,710 $61,190 $100,060
Georgia $79,440 $60,400 $118,270
Hawaii $120,100 $76,640 $137,710
Idaho $77,940 $61,530 $100,440
Illinois $78,980 $62,180 $102,080
Indiana $73,290 $55,200 $95,600
Iowa $65,000 $56,330 $83,360
Kansas $66,460 $52,010 $93,120
Kentucky $75,800 $56,120 $98,540
Louisiana $73,180 $57,500 $95,540
Maine $77,340 $61,170 $100,910
Maryland $83,850 $64,680 $106,910
Massachusetts $98,520 $67,480 $154,160
Michigan $79,180 $64,270 $100,920
Minnesota $84,060 $65,500 $107,960
Mississippi $63,330 $49,980 $84,030
Missouri $71,460 $51,440 $94,340
Montana $76,550 $62,930 $98,970
Nebraska $74,990 $58,900 $93,230
Nevada $94,930 $74,200 $130,200
New Hampshire $80,550 $62,790 $104,270
New Jersey $98,090 $76,650 $118,150
New Mexico $81,990 $64,510 $106,300
New York $100,370 $64,840 $132,950
North Carolina $76,430 $59,580 $100,430
North Dakota $69,640 $60,780 $91,150
Ohio $76,810 $61,860 $98,380
Oklahoma $74,520 $53,560 $97,520
Oregon $106,680 $81,470 $131,210
Pennsylvania $78,740 $61,450 $101,450
Rhode Island $85,960 $65,260 $104,790
South Carolina $75,610 $52,620 $93,190
South Dakota $62,920 $51,240 $80,860
Tennessee $65,800 $51,270 $95,490
Texas $79,830 $61,950 $105,270
Utah $77,240 $61,850 $98,000
Vermont $77,230 $60,900 $101,570
Virginia $79,700 $61,970 $104,410
Washington $101,230 $77,460 $131,230
West Virginia $74,160 $47,640 $96,470
Wisconsin $79,750 $65,110 $100,820
Wyoming $77,730 $60,910 $102,010

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

How Does an OR Nurse Salary Compare to a Surgical Technologist and Nurse Anesthetist Salary?

Surgical technologists also work in the operating room, assisting with surgery and providing patient care. However, OR nurses generally have more education and responsibility and earn significantly more.

OR nurses looking to advance their careers might want to consider becoming a nurse anesthetist. You’ll need at least a Master of Science in Nursing, so more school and training are required. But the earning potential is more than twice that of a nurse.

Career Median Annual Salary
Registered Nurses $81,220
Surgical Technologists $55,960
Nurse Anesthetists $203,090

How to Stay Informed in this Field

To learn of opportunities to build your nursing career, you’ll need to stay connected and informed about trends in your profession. Some important resources for OR nurses include:

Association of PeriOperative Registered Nurses (AORN)

AORN is a national organization dedicated to perioperative nurses. It provides continuing education, advocacy, networking opportunities, and more.

The International Federation of Perioperative Nurses (IFPN)

IFPN is an international organization dedicated to OR nursing and provides resources for OR nurses around the world.

American Pediatric Surgical Nurses Association Inc. (APSNA)

APSNA is dedicated to pediatric surgery and provides support, resources, and education opportunities for OR nurses specializing in pediatrics.

AORN also publishes the AORN Journal, a monthly peer-reviewed publication dedicated to the latest news in OR nursing. The journal’s articles contain enough educational content that AORN members can get over 200 free continuing education credits a year just by reading them.

There’s a lot to consider when you’re choosing a nursing specialty. You’ll want to think about the environment you work in, the tasks you’ll do and the pace you’ll be working at, among other things. You might be highly successful in this type of work if you’re:

  • Good at teamwork
  • Able to stay calm under stress
  • A fast problem solver
  • An excellent communicator
  • Highly organized
  • Highly knowledgeable about anatomy and biology

“If you are interested in working in a fast-paced environment where you are continuously learning,” says Ayad, “becoming a perioperative nurse sounds like the right career path for you.”

Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing Writer

With professional insight from:

Judy Pins, RN, MBA, MHRD

President, Pfiedler Enterprises (a subsidiary of the Association of Operating Room Nurses)

thereza ayad

Thereza Ayad, DNP

Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts Medical School