Exploratory Laparotomy: Recovery

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Healing from an exploratory laparotomy can take several weeks because the surgery usually involves a large abdominal incision in order to visualize a patient's organs and tissues for bleeding, disease, or injury.

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. Here's what to expect from your recovery and warning signs to watch out for.

Recovery After Exploratory Laparotomy

Tim Pannell / Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

Surgery Follow-Up

While the exact timeline for when you will follow-up with your surgeon after an exploratory laparotomy depends on factors like how well your recovery went in the hospital, and the reason why the surgery was performed in the first place, you can generally expect to follow-up about two and six weeks after your operation.

During your follow-up appointments, your surgeon will do the following:

  • Check your abdominal incision site to make sure that it is closing and healing well.
  • Evaluate you for various post-operative complications like wound infection or dehiscence.
  • Remove any non-dissolvable stitches or staples that were used to close your abdominal wound (usually at the two-week post-operative visit).
  • Answer any questions or concerns you have.

Besides surgery-related appointments, you may have other doctor appointments to attend, depending on what was found during the surgery.

Here are examples of scenarios that often warrant additional doctor appointments after an exploratory laparotomy:

  • If cancer of one of the abdominal organs was found (e.g., ovary, colon, pancreatic, or liver), you will need to see an oncologist after your surgery.
  • If you had one or more intra-abdominal abscesses surgically drained, you may need follow-up imaging with a computed tomography (CT) scan to ensure the abscess does not recur.
  • If you had an ectopic pregnancy, you will follow-up weekly with your obstetrician/gynecologist to monitor your blood β-hCG level (until it is negative).

Recovery Timeline

After an exploratory laparotomy, you can expect to stay in the hospital for approximately two to 10 days. Your hospital stay may be longer if you underwent emergent surgery, had other procedures performed during the operation, or developed complications after surgery.

As you recover in the hospital, you can expect the following:

  • You will stay in the postoperative care unit (PACU) for several hours prior to being taken to your hospital room. In the PACU, nurses will monitor your pain level and vital signs.
  • Once in your hospital room, you will first be given pain medication through an IV. Once you start eating (about two to three days after surgery), you will be transitioned over to oral pain medication.
  • You will begin getting out of bed, sitting in a chair, and eventually, walking, with the help of a physical therapist.
  • You will be given a breathing device called an incentive spirometer (this device will help keep your lungs healthy after surgery).
  • You may wear compression boots and/or take a blood thinner to help prevent blood clots in your legs.
  • Your surgical team will check your abdomen and your incision site daily.

Once discharged from the hospital, it's important to follow your surgeon's post-operative instructions to a tee. This will optimize your chances for a successful recovery.

Some of these instructions may suggest the following:

  • Take your pain medication as instructed, which may entail an opioid followed by Tylenol (acetaminophen).
  • Take other medications as directed, such as the anti-nausea medication Zofran (ondansetron) or the stool softener Colace (docusate sodium).
  • Avoid lifting anything greater than 5 to 10 pounds for six weeks.
  • Resume driving when you can safely operate a car's gas and brake pedals and are off all opioid pain medications.
  • Arrange for a family member or friend to help you with chores at home as you recover.

Coping With Recovery

The recovery process after an exploratory laparotomy is often not only physically taxing, but also emotionally draining. Besides feeling worried about the actual surgery and the recovery process, you may feel apprehensive about the outcome—like what the surgeon will find, and how you will move forward if more therapies are needed.

If you are feeling stressed or experiencing symptoms of depression after surgery, please reach out to your surgeon or primary care physician. They can provide you with a referral to a mental health professional.

Seeing a Mental Health Professional

To ease the stress of your recovery, you may benefit from undergoing certain psychological interventions, like guided imagery or meditation. You may also require more intensive treatment like regular talk therapy

Wound Care

At home, after your surgery, it's important to keep your wound site clean and dry. When showering, let the water run gently over your incision site and then pat it dry with a clean towel. Be sure to avoid swimming or taking a bath until your surgeon gives you the OK to do so.

Do not hesitate to call your surgical team right away if you experience any signs or symptoms of an infection, such as:

  • Fever, chills, or body aches
  • Increased tenderness, warmth, redness, or swelling around the incision site
  • White/yellow and/or foul-smelling fluid coming out of the incision site

Be sure to also contact your surgical team if you develop any of the following symptoms:

  • Persistent or severe nausea and vomiting
  • Coughing
  • An inability to urinate
  • Pain, swelling, or redness in your calf or leg

Seek emergency medical attention if you develop chest pain or trouble breathing. These may signify a serious medical problem, like a pulmonary embolism (when a blood clot travels from the leg to the lung).

A Word From Verywell

Healing from an exploratory laparotomy can be an exhaustive and time-intensive process. Nevertheless, with a robust recovery plan, close follow-up, support from loved ones, and some patience on your end, you can get through these few weeks.

Afterward, you can focus your energy on what the outcome of the surgery means for you—perhaps, a diagnosis long-awaited or relief from your abdominal pain.

8 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.
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Additional Reading
  • Marx, John A., et al. Rosen's Emergency Medicine. St. Louis, MO: Mosby, Inc.

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