An exploratory laparotomy is the name given to an abdominal surgery used to examine the organs and tissues of the abdomen when a diagnosis has not been made. If the source of an abdominal problem is not obvious, a visual examination of the abdominal cavity may help.
In the past, an exploratory laparotomy was commonly performed for “abdominal pain of unknown origin,” when testing was unsuccessful in determining the reason for the pain. It was also performed for many other reasons, including trauma, suspected cancer or other conditions that testing could not diagnose.
Today, the minimally invasive approach is used much more frequently than this open approach. In the majority of cases this technique is reserved for circumstances where time is of the essence, the patient is unstable or when the procedure requires a large incision, such as a surgery that requires that a large portion of the intestine be visible and accessible.
In some cases, the surgeon may find the cause of the abdominal problem and finish the exploratory laparotomy with no further treatment. The findings can then be discussed when the patient is fully awake and alert, and a treatment plan created. For example, if a woman was found to have severe ovarian cysts during a laparotomy, the surgeon might decide to discuss the procedure and the alternatives with the patient before going forward with surgical treatment.