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What is Exploratory Surgery?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Exploratory surgery is a surgery which is performed solely for diagnostic purposes, without the intent of treating disease. It can be used to look for things which are not showing up with other diagnostic techniques, such as suspected cancers which cannot be identified in medical imaging studies. It can also be used with patients who are unable to communicate about their symptoms, such as animals. This kind of surgery on animals is quite common, especially for bowel obstructions.

In exploratory surgery, the goal is to open the body up to get a look inside and to use the information to arrive at a diagnosis, or to contribute to a differential diagnosis. In some cases, biopsies may be taken to sample areas of interest, but excisions, repairs, and other surgical procedures which are designed to treat disease are not a part of the surgery. Sometimes, a surgical procedure turns exploratory when the surgeon opens the patient up and realizes the situation is more complicated than it originally appeared, requiring a new evaluation and approach to treatment.

Because surgery can be dangerous, exploratory surgery is undertaken with care. The patient is fully examined before the surgery for any signs of potential surgical complications, and bloodwork will be used to evaluate the patient's general health, to determine whether or not surgery is safe. Once the patient has been cleared for surgery, induction of anesthetic can occur, making the patient unconscious for the procedure.

In traditional exploratory surgery, the surgeon makes an incision, uses retractors to open up the patient, and takes a look inside. Surgical implements may be used to move organs, fat, and muscles around for a better view, and the surgeon may consult a colleague to discuss what appears to be going on inside the patient. Once the surgeon has gathered the necessary information, the wound will be closed, and the patient will be taken off the anesthesia machine and brought into recovery.

Today, surgeons are more likely to use laproscopic surgery, which is a minimally invasive type of surgery in which small incisions are made in the skin so that tubes which hold cameras and surgical tools can be inserted. The cameras are used to visualize the surgical field, allowing the surgeon to clearly see what is going on, and the objects in the surgical field can be manipulated with clamps and probes inserted through the incisions. Healing time from laproscopic surgery is much more rapid, and less grueling for the patient.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon990876 — On May 13, 2015

If you are having pain in your lower left and right abdomen and the doctor said it is normal, the cause of it is just a hot and cold air trapped that cannot get out. You need to massage around it to break so that it can get out. Hope this will help. Thanks.

By anon248364 — On Feb 17, 2012

Good God people. People walked in for an exploratory but never walked out? These surgeries happen all the time and they are relatively safe. In fact, my girlfriend, now wife, had an ovarian cyst which was removed and she is totally fine. Her family doctor and ob did tests and didn't think it was a cyst. After constant pain, she had surgery and removal of the cyst. She was 17.

And for the other alarmists about infertility afterwards, she is pregnant currently. Any Googlers who found this post, talk with your doctors and hear what they say. If severe pain continues and the doctor won't do anything, find another doctor.

By anon131814 — On Dec 04, 2010

A very good friend of mine had this surgery done. She walked in, and never walked out. Her small intestine was cut. End of story.

By anon114345 — On Sep 28, 2010

will they do an exploratory hernia operation at the same time?

By mistysmith — On Apr 02, 2010

I am 30. I had a hysterectomy. I lost a lot of blood. Needed six units. I got a blood clot from the IV. A month later I had to go back for an exploratory surgery for fluid pockets under my incision. Now I have a 5X3 inch hole along my bikini line that has an infection. Beware of what you have done.

By anon66333 — On Feb 19, 2010

This isn't a good place to seek medical advice. It's also dangerous to provide medical advice if you're not a trained medical practitioner.

By anon52609 — On Nov 15, 2009

anon, my 17 year old daughter is going through the same thing. this doctor says ovarian cyst, ob gyn says its not. probably exploratory surgery. Six months of pain and no answers. we are speaking directly with the local hospital now, instead of family practitioners. hang in there.

By anon48697 — On Oct 14, 2009

I am 16 almost 17 and I am having left abdominal pain (no fever) and they aren't sure what's wrong. I have had a CT scan, an ultrasound, and blood work. At first the ER said it was an ovarian cyst, then i went to the Ob/Gyn and they said that it isn't and it was my stomach. i went to the family doctor and he said that he had no clue. he sent me to a surgeon and then i have seen him twice now and he is having me go to a new surgeon and have another opinion and then he will do the surgery but I'm not that nervous -- i just want a clue to why i am always in pain! I can only play half a game of field hockey some days because I'm in dying pain. any ideas?

By anon40199 — On Aug 06, 2009

I'm 46 and have been experiencing severe menstrual pain for more than a year. I've been complaining to the doctors who have no answers to give me. I recently hemorrhaged and now I'm scheduled to have exploratory surgery to try and find an answer. I'm scared I don't know what to expect. I know I need answers, but I'm scared! The doctors do not seem to know much nowadays.

By debbie21 — On Feb 05, 2009

I am 15 i have been running a low rate fever and having lower right abdominal pain. I have been nauseous. The doctors did all kinds of tests and said "you are fine, it's just ovarian cyst." I went back to the doctor and they're going to do a exploratory surgery and take out my appendix. Any suggestions on what might be doing this?

By cmc1972 — On Jan 25, 2009

My 12 year old son has been vomiting multiple times a day and complaining of lower right abdominal pain ( no fever) for almost four weeks. He has of course missed this time at school. He has seen the pediatrician twice and a surgeon twice. He has had blood work, urine cultures, CT scans, ultrasounds and an endoscopy. All have appeared normal. The surgeon is planning on exploratory surgery on Tuesday and I am very nervous about this. Any suggestions on what could be causing this?

By cmc1972 — On Jan 25, 2009

what happens next if you have exploratory surgery and still nothing is found?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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