What to Know About Exploratory Laparotomy

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 09, 2021

Exploratory laparotomy is an abdominal surgery that doctors sometimes use to diagnose abdominal issues. It is usually recommended when other testing did not diagnose or fully resolve an issue.

Reasons to perform this surgery include:

  • Abdominal trauma (for example, from an accident)
  • Unexplained bleeding
  • Severe pain
  • Unexplained pain
  • Cancer with undetermined spread

What Do Doctors Do During an Exploratory Laparotomy?

During this surgery, doctors may explore your organs to find the cause of pain or bleeding. The organs they may examine include your:

  • Liver
  • Kidneys
  • Stomach
  • Spleen
  • Pancreas
  • Intestines (both small and large)
  • Reproductive organs like your uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries
  • Appendix
  • Blood vessels
  • Membranes
  • Lymph nodes

During the surgery, depending on what they find, your doctor may take samples or biopsies to send to a lab for testing. If they find the cause of the problem, they may perform surgery to fix it during the exploratory laparotomy. 

Conditions that may be discovered during this surgery include:

How to Prepare For an Exploratory Laparotomy

This surgery is sometimes done in emergency situations, like after an accident. If that is the case, there is not much you can do to prepare for it. However, if it is a scheduled surgery:

  • Quit smoking a few weeks before the surgery.
  • Make sure all other health conditions are well-managed before surgery.
  • Tell your doctor about any other supplements, prescriptions, and over-the-counter medications you are taking.
  • Be honest with your doctor about your drinking habits.
  • Tell your doctor about any possibility of pregnancy.

The week before surgery. In the week before the surgery, your doctor may advise you to stop taking certain kinds of medications. Make sure to clarify which ones you should still take. You should also prepare your home for when you come back from the hospital and make arrangements for any people you will have helping you while you recover.

The day of surgery. Follow your doctor's instructions about when to stop eating and drinking before your surgery. If you do have to take any medications, take them with a small sip of water to avoid drinking too much liquid. Make sure to get to the hospital on time to keep things running on schedule.

How to Recover From an Exploratory Laparotomy

In general, recovery from an exploratory laparotomy takes 4 to 6 weeks.

Recovery in the hospital. It may take a few days before you can eat or drink normally after this surgery. Your bowels need time to function as they usually do. You will recover from this surgery in the hospital until you can eat and drink on your own.

You will receive medication to help manage the pain and prevent infections. You will likely have a catheter to drain your urine. Depending on the site of your incision, you may have a drain to help get rid of excess fluids.

One study showed that the average length of a hospital stay after an exploratory laparotomy is just over seven days.

Recovery at home. Once the doctors determine it is safe for you to go home, make sure to follow all of their instructions. Take all prescriptions as directed. Your doctor may also recommend you take fiber to keep your bowels healthy as you heal. Do not lift anything heavier than 5 pounds for six weeks after the surgery.

If you experience any of the following, contact your doctor right away:

  • Fever and/or chills
  • Pain, redness, or swelling at the incision
  • Pain that is so bad medication doesn't help
  • Swelling of the abdomen
  • Diarrhea for longer than two days
  • Blood in your stool
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Painful urination
  • Chest pain or cough
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Fainting
  • Leg swelling or leg pain

Exploratory Laparotomy Risks

An exploratory laparotomy is a major surgery. Every major surgery has risks, including:

  • Bleeding
  • Infection
  • Unexpected reaction to anesthesia
  • Poor healing at the incision

Risks specific to an exploratory laparotomy include:

  • Lack of diagnosis of issue, resulting in a need for more procedures and tests
  • Damage to bowels
  • Damage to other abdominal organs
  • A hernia at the incision site

What Is an Exploratory Laparoscopy?

Also called a diagnostic laparoscopy, this procedure is a less invasive option. Your doctor will make one or more small incisions in your abdomen and then insert a small tube with a camera on the end to get a better view of your internal organs. This surgery can also help to diagnose abdominal issues.

An exploratory laparoscopy differs from exploratory laparotomy in that it is usually done as an outpatient procedure, meaning you go home on the same day. It only takes about two weeks to recover from the procedure. 

Show Sources


Annals of Global Health: "Epidemiology and Perioperative Mortality of Exploratory Laparotomy in Rural Ghana."

Medscape: "Exploratory Laparotomy."

Mount Sinai: "Abdominal exploration."

Saint Luke's: "Exploratory Laparotomy."

UC San Diego Health: "Exploratory Laparotomy."

UCSF: "Diagnostic laparoscopy."

WakeMed: "What to Expect."

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