How to Become a Trauma Nurse

The Education, Training, and Certification You’ll Need for This Specialty

emt and trauma nurses bring accident patient into hospital
trauma nurse team brings patient on gurney into hospital

Trauma nursing is one of the most intense, fast-paced professions in healthcare. These fearless nurses care for patients with life-threatening injuries from work accidents, physical violence, burns, and crashes, just to name a few. You’ll need confidence, poise under pressure, an entry-level nursing degree, and your nursing license to get started at a job in a trauma center or hospital.

According to a 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), traumatic injuries are the leading cause of death for patients up to 44 years of age. Every three minutes, a patient dies of injuries related to accidents or violent crime, for a total of 480 deaths each day. Expressed another way, in 2016 there were 29.2 million emergency room visits for unintentional injuries.

If you thrive in crisis situations, excel at task management and communication, and enjoy working with diverse patient populations, this specialty might appeal to you. Want to learn more? We’ve got you covered, from details about the education you’ll need to the salary you can expect.

On the Job: Are You Ready to Save Lives?

Trauma nurses work with medical staff, including emergency service crews and trauma surgeons, to stabilize patients suffering from acute injuries. There’s a lot on the line, and these nurses must think and act fast while working as part of a team. At a moment’s notice, you’ll need to be prepared to:

  • Administer first aid and CPR
  • Care for wounds
  • Administer IV fluids, blood products, or emergency medications
  • Reassure patients and families in trauma situations
  • Work seamlessly with the medical team
  • Work with law enforcement to report cases of abuse or criminal activity

The Society of Trauma Nurses (STN), one of the leading associations for this field, adds in its mission statement materials: “Since nurses are at the bedside 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they are responsible for monitoring the trauma patient, assessing the patient for evolving injuries, actively performing procedures, assessing and relieving pain, teaching and comforting patients and their families.”

There’s a lot on the line for trauma patients, and their nurses must think and act fast.

Since you’ll see patients in life-or-death situations in this line of work, you’ll need to maintain a calm demeanor in high-stress environments. And you’ll need to be able to think on your feet to provide advanced life support for patients who may not have easily identifiable injuries or conditions.

As part of a first response medical team, you’ll help patients from all walks of life with serious injuries from:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Work site accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Burns
  • Gunshot or stab wounds
  • Assault
  • Physical or emotional abuse or neglect

As a trauma nurse, you’ll be qualified to work in a variety of clinical settings, including:

Part Nurse, Part Public Educator

The STN emphasizes the role of trauma nurses in promoting public health. They often educate groups about how to prevent injuries and the importance of wearing seatbelts and not texting while driving. You’ll work with children, teen drivers, and the elderly, groups most prone to accidents and injuries.

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

ER nurses work with seriously ill patients in an emergency department.

Trauma nurses work with critically injured patients in a trauma center or emergency department.

Plan on Spending 2-4 Years on Education and Training

You’ll need to complete an accredited, entry-level nursing program to become a registered nurse (RN), which is the degree you need to work as a trauma nurse. You’ll have three options to earn your education:

  • A two-year associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) program
  • A three-year hospital-based nursing diploma program (hands-on training alongside classes that allows you to start working quickly, but likely tethers you to work at the hospital for a predetermined amount of time. Plus, credits from such a program might not be transferable to an ADN or BSN program).
  • A four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) program

Depending on which path you take, it can take anywhere from two to four years to complete your education. No matter which program you choose, you’ll learn the basics of nursing in classes like these:

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

While you’ll be qualified to work as an RN with a degree from any accredited program, having a BSN can be an advantage. The degree is becoming an industry standard, and some employers have started to require it.

It can take anywhere from two to four years to complete your education.

Four-year university programs also offer advantages. You’ll have the chance to get hands-on clinical experience in various specialties during rotations, giving you a taste of what it would be like to work in emergency medical, surgical and critical care. Experience like this could be pivotal in helping you decide if you want to pursue trauma nursing.

Learning Online

Nursing degrees require hands-on clinical training in hospitals or other medical settings, so you can’t take all of your classes online. However, for classes that don’t require training, you might be able to learn online instead of in the classroom. If that’s an important option for you, research the schools you’re interested in to see what they offer.

Tests and Licensing

After completing your degree, you’ll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). This standardized test covers all aspects of nursing practice and theory. Once you pass the NCLEX-RN, you’ll be ready to apply for an RN license in your state. You’ll need to provide proof of your education and your NCLEX-RN scores. Depending on your state, you might also need to undergo a background check and have CPR certification or reference letters before taking your test or working. Take a look at our state-by-state licensing guide to see your requirements.

Specialty Certifications

degree diploma icon

With your RN license in hand, you can apply for trauma nursing positions. If you decide to dedicate your career to this field and are looking to advance, certification as a trauma certified registered nurse (TCRN) could give you a boost. The Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing (BCEN) offers this certification, and the Society of Trauma Nurses highly recommends it.

To earn your TCRN certification, you’ll need:

  • At least two years of trauma nurse work
  • 2,000 hours of trauma nurse experience
  • At least 20 credit hours of coursework dedicated to trauma nursing

Specialty Trauma Certifications

Depending on where you work, you might be required to get additional certification. For example, if you work in a trauma unit that treats children, you might need an Emergency Nursing Pediatric Course (ENPC), specifically the Trauma Nursing Core Course (TNCC)

Other certifications through the BCEN that trauma nurses might need include:

Certified Flight Registered Nurse (CFRN)

Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN)

Certified Transport Registered Nurse (CTRN)

Where the Jobs Are, and What They Pay

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the nursing field is expected to grow at a rate of 7% by the year 2029—much faster than the national job growth rate. The Society of Trauma Nurses expects the number of traumatic injuries to grow in coming years, in large part because the nation’s baby boomer population continues to grow and age. As a result, this field of nursing is one of the most in-demand in the nation. 

According to a 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the following seven states will have the largest nursing shortage by 2030:

  • California
  • Texas
  • New Jersey
  • South Carolina
  • Alaska
  • Georgia
  • South Dakota

If you live in any of these states and are thinking about becoming a trauma nurse, now might be the perfect time to earn your degree and certification.

Education + Experience = Salary

The mean (average) salary for an RN is $75,510 per year, according to the BLS, but specialized nurses tend to earn more. A 2019 survey by the STN and BCEN found that trauma nurses earn an average salary of $82,500, based on a range of $67,500 to $102,500. What you earn will depend on your experience, education, and employer.

And education is important for this specialty: Among emergency and trauma nurses, 78% hold at least a BSN, according the Society of Trauma Nurses survey. A BSN and certification are likely to boost your salary and help advance your career.

Stay Connected to Move Ahead

After you get your degree and certification, you’ll want to stay informed in your field to advance your career. Some great ways to keep up with trends and developments include:

  • Subscribe to the Journal of Trauma Nursing. Published by STN, the journal can help you keep up with the latest developments in the field.
  • Be active on social media. Follow nursing organizations like the STN on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook to make connections and learn about classes, conferences, and other events.
  • Join professional organizations for trauma nurses. These groups can help you access job boards, mentors, and other resources. Check out these organizations to get started.

The Society of Trauma Nurses (STN)

STN hosts annual conferences, publishes research in the field, and matches nurses to mentors.

American Trauma Society

The ANS provides networking opportunities for trauma professionals as well as conferences and educational materials.

Emergency Nurses Association (ENA)

The ENA supports trauma and ER nurses and provides continuing education, networking, and career advancement tools.

Air & Surface Transport Emergency Nurses Association

ASTN is a resource for nurses who work in critical care transportation such as flight and ambulance nursing.

Are You a Future Trauma Nurse?

If you excel in unpredictable, changing work environments, this specialty could be a great fit for you.

Trauma nurses need strong critical thinking skills and the ability to think on their feet in life-or-death situations, quickly assessing patients and helping stabilize them in medical emergencies. Employers look for strong communications skills, careful attention to detail, and confidence during crisis situations. You’ll also need an extra dose of empathy to help patients and families stay calm during critical operations and procedures.

If you possess these strengths, you may be a valuable member on a trauma team.

Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing Writer