What Is Laparoscopic Surgery?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on March 06, 2021

Laparoscopy is a type of surgery that uses smaller cuts than you might expect.

The process takes its name from the laparoscope, a slender tool that has a tiny video camera and light on the end. When a surgeon inserts it through a small cut and into your body, they can look at a video monitor and see what’s happening inside you. Without those tools, they’d have to make a much larger opening. Thanks to special instruments, your surgeon won’t have to reach into your body, either. That also means less cutting.

Have you heard people talk about “minimally invasive” surgery? Laparoscopic surgery is one kind. Doctors first used it for gallbladder surgery and gynecology operations. Then it came in play for the intestines, liver, and other organs.

How It’s Done

Before this system came along, a surgeon who operated on their patient’s belly had to make a cut that was 6-to-12 inches long. That gave them enough room to see what they were doing and reach whatever they had to work on.

In laparoscopic surgery, the surgeon makes several small cuts. Usually, each one is no more than a half-inch long. (That's why it's sometimes called keyhole surgery.) They insert a tube through each opening, and the camera and surgical instruments go through those. Then the surgeon does the operation.


Working this way has several advantages compared with traditional surgery. Because it involves less cutting:

  • You have smaller scars.
  • You get out of the hospital quicker.
  • You'll feel less pain while the scars heal, and they heal quicker.
  • You get back to your normal activities sooner.
  • You may have less internal scarring.

Here’s an example. With traditional methods, you might spend a week or more in the hospital for intestinal surgery, and your total recovery might take 4 to 8 weeks. If you have laparoscopic surgery, you might stay only 2 nights in the hospital and recover in 2 or 3 weeks. And a shorter hospital stay generally costs less.

Advanced Kinds of Laparoscopic Surgery

In some operations, the surgeon can put the camera and the surgical tool through the same opening in the skin. This means less scarring. But it’s trickier for the surgeon because the instruments are so close together.

In other cases, the surgeon may decide to use a device that lets them reach in with a hand. This is called “hand assisted” laparoscopy. The cut in the skin has to be longer than a half-inch, but it still can be smaller than in traditional surgery. This has made it possible to use laparoscopic surgery for the liver and other organs.

When a Robot Helps

Technology can help the medical team be precise. In the robotic version of laparoscopic surgery, the surgeon first cuts into the skin and inserts the camera, as usual. Instead of taking hold of the surgical instruments, they set up a robot’s mechanical arms. Then they move to a computer nearby.

A lot of surgeons think robotic surgery is especially helpful for operating on people who weigh a lot, and for gynecology and urology surgery. Most prostate removal operations use robots.

With robotic surgery, the monitor gives the surgeon a 3-D, high-resolution, magnified image inside the body. As they watch the screen, they use hand controls to operate the robot and surgical instruments. This lets the surgeon be more exact, and it can mean less impact on your body and less bleeding. You may also have less discomfort after the operation.

Show Sources


American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: “Laparoscopy.”

American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons: “Laparoscopic Surgery – What Is It?” “Minimally Invasive Surgery Expanded Version.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Laparoscopic Surgery for Digestive Diseases.”

Merriam-Webster: "Laparoscopy."

Providence Health & Services: “Laparoscopic and Robotic Surgery: What’s the Difference?”

University of Southern California Department of Surgery: “What is Laparoscopic Surgery?”

Stanford Medicine Department of Urology": "Laparoscopic Surgery."

Mayo Clinic: "Minimally Invasive Surgery."

PubMed Central: "Past, Present, and Future of Minimally Invasive Abdominal Surgery."

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