• Surgery is an operation used to diagnose or treat a person’s disease, deformity or injury.
  • Generally speaking, surgery involves cutting or otherwise penetrating the body’s tissues.
  • Ask your doctor or surgeon about the benefits, risks and possible side effects of surgery – if in doubt, seek a second opinion.
Surgery is a medical operation used to diagnose or treat a person’s disease, deformity or injury. Generally speaking, surgical procedures involve cutting or otherwise penetrating the body’s tissues. There are many different types of surgery. All have benefits, risks and possible side effects.

Ask your doctor or surgeon for more information to help you decide about treatment. This is known as ‘informed consent’. Your health professional has a duty to explain the kind of operation you will undergo and any other options that are available to you. They should also clearly explain about any dangers and risks. If in doubt, seek a second opinion.

Types of surgery

There are hundreds of different types of surgery and many ways to categorise them. Some common categories (which can overlap) include:
  • The aim of surgery
  • The urgency of surgery
  • The seriousness of surgery
  • The field of surgery
  • The surgical approach.

The aim of surgery

Surgeries can be grouped according to their purpose. For example:
  • Diagnosis – surgery can establish whether a person has a particular illness, disease or condition. Diagnostic surgery may be recommended when the person has signs that something may be wrong – for example, they may report unusual symptoms or have a positive test result. An example of diagnostic surgery is a breast lump biopsy.
  • Prevention – the removal of tissue to stop a disease from happening. An example of this type of surgery is an operation to remove bowel polyps that may turn cancerous if left untreated. This type of surgery is also called prophylactic surgery.
  • Ablation – means the surgical removal of tissue. Typically, ablative surgery involves cutting out diseased or severely damaged body parts. In most cases, the name of the surgery ends in -ectomy. Examples include mastectomy (removal of a cancerous breast) or cholecystectomy (removal of a diseased gall bladder).
  • Reconstruction – the aim is to restore use (such as knee reconstructive surgery) or improve appearance (such as breast reconstruction following mastectomy). Sometimes, reconstructive surgery achieves both. For example, a cleft palate repair enhances the person’s appearance and also improves their ability to eat, swallow and talk.
  • Transplantation – this is surgery to replace a body part that no longer works properly: for example, a hip replacement or a lung transplant. The part may be artificial (made from silicone, stainless steel or titanium) or natural (donated from a deceased person).
  • Palliative care – the aim is to reduce pain, control symptoms and improve quality of life when there is no chance of cure. An example of this type of surgery is nerve resection to stop a person from feeling constant pain.

The urgency of surgery

Surgeries may be classified by degree of urgency. For example:
  • Emergency surgery – must be done as soon as possible to save the person’s life or preserve function of a body part. An example is surgery to repair damage to internal organs following a motor vehicle accident.
  • ‘Elective’ surgery – is not urgent but must be done at some point for the sake of the person’s ongoing health or quality of life (for example, surgery to repair severe scoliosis or deformity of the spine) or because the person chooses to have an operation which may be helpful but is not necessarily essential (for example, cosmetic surgery to change the appearance of a person’s nose, or rhinoplasty). In Australia, the public hospital system operates on three main categories of elective surgery – urgent, semi-urgent and non-urgent. All non-emergency surgeries are planned in advance.

The seriousness of surgery

All surgery carries risk to the person. The factors that determine the degree of risk include the body part that is affected, the seriousness of the medical condition, the extent of surgery, the complexity of surgery and the expected recovery time. Categories include:
  • Major surgery – such as surgery to the organs of the head, chest and abdomen. Examples of major surgery include organ transplant, removal of a brain tumour, removal of a damaged kidney or open-heart surgery. The person will need to stay in hospital for some time. The risk of complications may be high and the person will take a longer time to recover.
  • Minor surgery – presents a low risk of complications and fast recovery time. The person can usually go home the same day. Examples of minor surgery include tonsillectomy, sewing up a cut or biopsy of a breast lump.

The field of surgery

Surgeries can be categorised by field, which includes body systems, diseases or conditions. For example:
  • Orthopaedic surgery – musculoskeletal system
  • Ocular surgery – the eyes
  • Neurosurgery – brain and spinal cord
  • Cardiac surgery – heart and surrounding blood vessels
  • Surgical oncology – treats cancer
  • Bariatric surgery – treats obesity.

The surgical approach

Surgeries can be categorised by broad technique. For example:
  • Open surgery – the traditional approach. The surgeon makes a large single incision to access the internal organs. An example is open-heart surgery, where the person’s chest is cut down the middle and opened up like a book. Open surgery of the abdominal cavity is known as laparotomy.
  • Keyhole surgery – the surgeon makes several small cuts (incisions) instead of one large one. Slender surgical instruments are passed through these incisions, including a laparoscope. This is a special viewing tube fitted with a light so the surgeon can see the internal organs. For this reason, keyhole surgery is also known as laparoscopic surgery.
  • Microsurgery – is used for delicate work on very small body structures. The surgeon relies on special equipment and microscopes to magnify the area to be operated on and uses tiny surgical instruments. An example of an operation that uses microsurgery techniques is a vasectomy reversal or re-attaching a severed finger.

Where to get help

  • Your doctor
  • Your surgeon
  • Your nearest hospital emergency department
  • In an emergency, call triple zero (000)
  • Nurse-on-Call Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)

Things to remember

  • Surgery is an operation used to diagnose or treat a person’s disease, deformity or injury.
  • Generally speaking, surgery involves cutting or otherwise penetrating the body’s tissues.
  • Ask your doctor or surgeon about the benefits, risks and possible side effects of surgery – if in doubt, seek a second opinion.

More information


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Exploratory surgery

Corrective surgery

Plastic and cosmetic

Reproductive and contraception

A-Z of surgical procedures

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This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by: General Surgeons Australia

Last updated: August 2014

Page content currently being reviewed.

Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.