Exploratory Laparotomy: Long-Term Care

Doctor and patient discuss recovery from laparotomy

Courtney Hale / E+ / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

An exploratory laparotomy, also called an "ex lap" or a celiotomy, involves a surgeon making a large abdominal incision in order to visualize a patient's organs and tissues for bleeding, disease, or injury. This major surgery is usually performed emergently in patients who have experienced abdominal trauma. It may also be performed electively to locate the source of a patient's symptoms.

Healing from an exploratory laparotomy can take several weeks. Carefully following your surgeon's post-operative instructions and engaging in overall healthy lifestyle habits will optimize your chances for achieving a successful long-term recovery.

Doctor and patient discuss recovery from laparotomy
Courtney Hale / E+ / Getty Images

Benefits of Surgery

The main benefit of an exploratory laparotomy is the potential diagnosis of a medical condition that cannot otherwise be found through less-invasive studies, such as imaging or laboratory tests.

Examples of diagnoses that may result from an exploratory laparotomy include:

Another benefit of an exploratory laparotomy is that many medical diagnoses can be treated or "fixed" during the same operation. For example, if a surgeon discovers an injured blood vessel, they can repair it to stop any bleeding. Likewise, if an abscess is found, the surgeon can drain it.

Possible Future Surgeries

As mentioned above, while some medical diagnoses can be treated during the same surgery, future surgeries may be needed in the following circumstances:

  • If cancer is found through a tissue biopsy.
  • If the surgery is performed emergently, and the patient has unstable vital signs, the surgery in this case may be ended abruptly, with a planned return to the operating room when the patient is more stable.
  • If, despite the surgery, the source of the patient's symptoms is still not discovered.

Future surgeries may also be needed if a complication arises as a result of the patient undergoing an exploratory laparotomy.

These surgeries may involve:

  • Repairing a fistula
  • Repairing an incisional hernia
  • Repairing an injury to an organ, like the intestines
  • Reversing an ostomy

Lifestyle Adjustments

Full recovery from an exploratory laparotomy usually takes around four to six weeks. The recovery process may be even longer in patients who undergo surgery emergently, have an extensive repair performed, or develop complications from the operation.

Besides adhering to your surgeon's post-operative instructions—for example, wound care instructions, follow-up appointments, and activity restrictions—it's prudent to engage in healthy lifestyle habits after surgery.

Such habits that can maintain or improve your health include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight, eating a well-balanced diet, and staying hydrated
  • Making sure your glucose levels are within target range (if you have diabetes)
  • Practicing healthy sleep habits (e.g., getting eight hours of sleep a night)
  • Working with a physical therapist to find an exercise program tailored to your needs
  • Stopping and/or moderating alcohol intake (per your surgeon's instructions)
  • Stopping smoking

Interestingly, research suggests that certain psychological factors, like having an optimistic personality and a strong spiritual faith, can also positively impact your recovery after surgery, as can engaging in various psychological interventions, such as guided imagery or meditation.

A Word From Verywell

Exploratory laparotomy is a major surgery that both patients and doctors generally like to avoid. This is because the operation is invasive, requires an extensive recovery time, and is usually performed emergently or as a last attempt at getting to the bottom of a patient's symptoms.

Nevertheless, if you have undergone this surgery, try to remain as committed as possible to your post-operative care and instructions. Additionally, be sure to reach out to your surgeon with any questions or concerns (even if it's months later). Most importantly, be kind to yourself as you move forward with life after your operation.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gejoe G, Yadev I, Rahul M. Emergency laparotomies at a tertiary care center—a hospital-based cross-sectional study. Indian J Surg. 79(3):206–211. doi:10.1007/s12262-016-1446-5

  2. Mount Sinai. Abdominal exploration.

  3. Moon J, Kang BH. Lateral approach of exploratory laparotomy through the open chest wall injury. Trauma Case Rep. 18: 52–55. doi:10.1016/j.tcr.2018.11.012

  4. Rajaretnam N, Burns B. Laparotomy (celiotomy). StatPearls.

  5. Saint Lukes Health System. Exploratory laparotomy.

  6. Su X, Wang D-X. Improve postoperative sleep: what can we do? Curr Opin Anaesthesiol. 31(1):83-88. doi:10.1097/ACO.0000000000000538

  7. Hoogeboom TJ, Dronkers JJ, Hulzebos EHJ, van Meeterna NLU. Merits of exercise therapy before and after major surgery. Curr Opin Anaesthesiol. ;27(2):161–166. doi:10.1097/ACO.0000000000000062

  8. Jung MK. Alcohol exposure and mechanisms of tissue injury and repair. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 35(3): 92–399. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01356.x

  9. American Society of Anesthesiologists. Smoking.

  10. Mavros MN, Athanasiou S, Gkegkes ID, Polyzos KA, Peppas G, Falagas ME. Do psychological variables affect early surgical recovery? PLoS One. 6(5):e20306. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020306

Additional Reading

By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.