How to Become a Trauma Surgeon

October 12, 2023


Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 10/11/23

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more high-paced, impactful, and rewarding career than trauma surgery. Read on to learn more about this career and how to join it!

One of the most common types of traumas is brain injury. In the United States, over 1.4 million people suffer from traumatic brain injuries each year, of which about 50,000 die, 235,000 are hospitalized, and 1.1 million are treated and sent home.

Severe head injuries can be fatal and difficult to treat, yet according to these statistics, the nation’s leading trauma surgeons have been able to successfully treat almost 80% of all brain injuries!

As the forefront healthcare providers in emergency centers, these professionals are highly-knowledgeable, quick-thinkers that thrive under pressure and know how to handle even the worst crises. 

If you think you have what it takes to join this profession, and are excited by the opportunity to save lives every day, this guide will go over how to become a trauma surgeon, their daily duties, salary, and more!

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What Does a Trauma Surgeon Do?

Trauma surgeons are responsible for providing critical care and performing emergency surgeries. These surgeons must quickly evaluate patients to determine if they require emergency surgery and diagnose them. Once they’ve completed their evaluations, they repair the trauma during surgery.

Any trauma surgeon will agree that their career is highly unpredictable—there’s no telling who or what will walk through their emergency doors on a given day. These surgeons see injuries as simple as minor fractures to injuries as complex as crush injuries, stab and gunshot wounds, brain hemorrhages, and more. 

Despite the limitless types of cases these surgeons see, the most common injuries they treat are:

Brain Injuries

These types of injuries are seen most often in young adults and the elderly. Brain injuries typically involve:

  • Skull fractures: resulting from significant blows to the head
  • Concussions: typically a minor injury but causes a loss of consciousness
  • Cerebral contusions: also known as “brain bruises”
  • Diffuse axonal injury: the severing of the fibers that allow neurons to communicate
  • Hematomas: bleeding in the brain (intracerebral), between the brain and dura (subdural), or between the skull and duras (extradural)

These injuries are the most common but also often the most difficult to repair.

Spinal Cord Injuries

These injuries involve bruised or torn spinal cords and occur most commonly in young people. There are two types of spinal cord injuries:

  • Complete: there is no function below the tear
  • Incomplete: there is some function below the tear

Trauma surgeons must carefully assess these injuries to create the most effective treatment plan.

Spine Fractures

Spine fractures can range from minor vertebral compression fractures, where there is a breakdown in a spinal bone, to severe burst fractures, where the spinal vertebrae are broken into several pieces.

Surgeries for these fractures typically involve bone grafts being put into place using metal hardware. 


Sometimes accidents cause limbs to be completely amputated on scene. Depending on the case, trauma surgeons can sometimes reattach these limbs! 

Facial Trauma

These injuries affect the face and jaw and typically require surgery if the injury causes major deformity or prevents normal functioning. Facial traumas generally require multiple surgeries over time to reach optimal functioning and appearance.

Acoustic Trauma

Acoustic trauma is when the inner ear is injured due to a loud noise. While the hearing loss sustained from these injuries is often permanent, trauma surgeons repair the ear to prevent further damage.

Crush Injuries

There are several types of damage that people often sustain with crush injuries, including:

  • Bleeding 
  • Bruising
  • Increased pressure in an arm or leg (compartment syndrome)
  • Fractures
  • Lacerations
  • Nerve injury
  • infection

As many crush injuries are life-threatening, trauma surgeons are required throughout the treatment process.


With over 200 bones in the body, trauma surgeons see and treat various fractures. While the majority don’t require surgery, the more severe ones do to prevent further damage and to stabilize the bones.

Collapsed Lungs

These occur when air that escapes from the lung creates pressure on the organ. Collapsed lungs are typically treated with oxygen, chest tubes, or lung surgery to repair the area where the air escaped from.

Myocardial Fusion

These injuries are essentially bruises on the heart. Since these can lead to heart attacks, immediate intervention is required. Surgical IV catheters, pacemakers, or vessel repairs are often required to treat this type of trauma.


Burns occur at three levels:

  • First-degree: the outer layer of skin is affected
  • Second-degree: the outer and underlying layer of skin is affected
  • Third-degree: the deep layers of skin are affected

Major burns require urgent medical care. The severity of these burns is assessed by trauma surgeons.

Hypovolemic Shock

Hypovolemic shock occurs when there is significant blood loss that makes the heart unable to pump enough blood to the body. This loss of blood can cause organ failure and is thus life-threatening.

Steps to Becoming a Trauma Surgeon

Now that you know the types of injuries and procedures trauma surgeons perform, your next question might be, “how long does it take to become a trauma surgeon?”

It will take around 14-15 years to join this profession. Here are the steps involved in this extensive journey:

Step One: Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

The first degree you’ll have to obtain is an undergrad from an accredited university. Since medical schools typically have science prerequisites they require students to complete prior to enrollment, most pre-med students choose science-based majors.

However, the choice is ultimately yours. Choose a major that you’re interested in because you’ll need to maintain a high GPA to get into your top medical schools.

Step Two: Gain Experience

While you’re still completing your undergrad you should try to gain considerable clinical experience that will prove your dedication to the medical field. Experience shadowing a physician can strengthen your application and tell the admissions committee you understand the rigors of the medical field and are still motivated to join it.

Step Three: Write the MCAT

Your MCAT is arguably the most important aspect of your medical school application. Regardless of the schools you’re applying to, this score will be weighed heavily in their assessment of your candidacy as it is typically a good indicator of your potential to succeed in med school.

Ensure you research your desired medical schools’ median MCAT score to set your target and create an effective study plan to help you reach this score. 

Step Four: Go to Medical School

Once you’ve gotten into your dream med school, you’ll spend the next four years learning the fundamentals of patient care and putting these skills to use during your clinical training.

Ensure you maintain high grades during medical school and build close connections with your peers and mentors. These grades and connections will help you match with a strong residency to best prepare you for your career.

Step Five: Pass the USMLE

The majority of students choose to write Step 1 of the USMLE after their second year of medical school, before their clinical rotations. Step 2 is typically completed during their third or fourth year, and the final step can only be completed after graduation.  

These exams license you to practice medicine independently. Passing the final exam will prove you have the necessary skills and knowledge to safely treat and care for patients. Full licensing or eligibility for licensing is typically required to apply to residencies. 

Step Six: Join a Surgical Residency

The next step in becoming a trauma surgeon is joining a reputable surgical residency. This residency will take five years to complete and will expose you to different types of surgical specialities. You will gain advanced training in various specialties through your clinical rotations. 

By the time you graduate you will have a deep understanding of typical surgical procedures and acute patient care.

Step Seven: Join a Trauma Surgery Fellowship 

By this point, you’ve gained the training and experience to perform a range of surgical procedures. However, since your goal is to become a trauma surgeon, you will have to gain advanced training in this specialty.

You’ll receive this training through a trauma surgery fellowship that will take one to two years to complete, depending on the program.

During your fellowship you will work at a Level I or II trauma center and will learn how to treat a range of traumas.

Trauma Surgeon Career and Salary Outlook

Another aspect to consider when discussing how to become a trauma surgeon is their career outlook.  

Rest assured, you’ll be well compensated for the time and money put into your medical career as a trauma surgeon. The average trauma surgeon salary is around $442,472 a year. Your earning potential can increase depending on your location and experience.

There is currently a shortage of trauma surgeons, so there is high demand for these healthcare professionals.

How to Know if Becoming a Trauma Surgeon is Right for You

Now that you know what a trauma surgeon job entails, and the extensive journey required to become one, you might be wondering if you really have what it takes to pursue this path. 

To help you finalize your decision, consider the following factors.

You’re Dedicated to Medicine and Patient Care

The first step to knowing if trauma surgery is right for you is having an unwavering dedication to patient care and medicine. You’ll be spending over a decade training to become a trauma surgeon and then the rest of your career treating critically injured patients. 

You must have a genuine passion for the work to stay motivated and become an effective surgeon.

You Can Handle Pressure

As a trauma surgeon, pressure will be your norm. You’ll be expected to make quick, life-saving decisions and adapt to new situations as they arise. You should be able to thrive under pressure to keep up with the demands of this job!

You Can Handle the Bad Days

Since you’ll be caring for often severely injured patients, you can expect there to be more bad days than good. If you entered the medical field to save lives, you should know and be prepared for the fact that you often won’t be able to save your patients’ lives.

FAQs: How to Become a Trauma Surgeon

We’ve covered the basics of how to become a trauma surgeon. For any remaining questions about this profession, read on to find your answers.

1. What Long Does It Take to Become a Trauma Surgeon?

It will take at least 14-15 years to become a trauma surgeon: four years for your undergrad, four years for your MD, five years for your general surgery residency, and one to two years for your trauma surgery fellowship.

2. What Is the Fastest Way to Become a Trauma Surgeon?

There are no shortcuts in the field of medicine! You’ll have to complete each degree before you can move onto the next step of the process. The quickest way to get through each step is to complete them in succession without gap years. 

3. Is It Hard to Be a Trauma Surgeon?

Yes, not only is the process of becoming a trauma surgeon lengthy and challenging, but the job itself is extremely demanding!

4. Is Trauma Surgery a Good Career?

Trauma surgery is a highly rewarding career. Since you treat critically injured patients, you’re a vital part of the healthcare system and are directly responsible for saving lives every day!

Final Thoughts

Entering the trauma field won’t be easy, and you can expect your career to be full of loss, challenging cases, and exhausting shifts. 

However, as the lead practitioners in medical emergencies, you have the ability to make the biggest impact on your patients and truly act as the barrier between life and death for the majority of them!

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