What is laparotomy?

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Laparotomy: Overview

A laparotomy (say "lap-uh-RAW-tuh-mee") is surgery done through a cut (incision) in your belly. The doctor can operate inside your belly through this incision. A laparotomy may be used for surgery on tumors, scar tissue (adhesions), duodenal ulcers, and more. The exact place where the incision is made depends on the reason for the surgery.

The amount of time you'll need to recover depends on the type of surgery you have. Your bowel movements may not be regular for several weeks after the surgery.

How can you care for yourself after a laparotomy?


  • Rest when you feel tired. Getting enough sleep will help you recover.
  • Allow your body to heal. Don't move quickly until you are feeling better. Talk with your doctor about when you can lift heavy things.
  • Be active. It can help prevent problems and help you recover. Walking is a good option for many.
  • Ask your doctor when you can drive again.
  • Many people are able to return to work within a few weeks after surgery.
  • Ask your doctor when it is okay for you to have sex.


  • Unless your doctor says otherwise, you can eat your normal diet. If your stomach is upset, start with small amounts of bland foods.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (unless your doctor tells you not to).
  • You may notice that your bowel movements are not regular for 1 to 2 weeks after your surgery. This is common. If that's the case, try to avoid constipation and straining. Your doctor may suggest fiber, a stool softener, or a mild laxative.


  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. You will also get instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • If you stopped taking aspirin or some other blood thinner, your doctor will tell you when to start taking it again.
  • Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • Store your prescription pain medicines where no one else can get to them. When you are done using them, dispose of them quickly and safely. Your local pharmacy or hospital may have a drop-off site.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.

Incision care

  • You will have a dressing or a skin adhesive over the cut (incision). This helps the incision heal and protects it. Your doctor will tell you how to take care of it.
  • If you have strips of tape on the incision, leave the tape on until it falls off.
  • If you have staples or stitches that don't dissolve on their own, your doctor will tell you when to come back to have them removed.
  • You may cover the area with a gauze bandage if it oozes fluid or rubs against clothing.
  • You may shower 24 to 48 hours after surgery. Pat the incision dry. Don't swim or take a bath for the first 2 weeks, or until your doctor tells you it is okay.
  • Gently wash the area daily with warm, soapy water, rinse, and pat it dry. Don't use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol. They can slow healing. If you have a bandage when you leave the hospital, change it as often as instructed by your doctor. And change it as needed if it gets wet or dirty.
  • Keep the area clean and dry.

Other instructions

  • You may have a drain near your incision. Your doctor will tell you how to take care of it.
  • Hold a pillow over your incision when you cough or take deep breaths. This will support your belly and decrease your pain.
  • Do breathing exercises at home as instructed by your doctor. This can help prevent pneumonia.

How do you prepare for a laparotomy?

Surgery can be stressful. This information will help you understand what you can expect. And it will help you safely prepare for surgery.

Preparing for surgery

  • Be sure you have someone to take you home. Anesthesia and pain medicine will make it unsafe for you to drive or get home on your own.
  • Understand exactly what surgery is planned, along with the risks, benefits, and other options.
  • Tell your doctor ALL the medicines, vitamins, supplements, and herbal remedies you take. Some may increase the risk of problems during your surgery. Your doctor will tell you if you should stop taking any of them before the surgery and how soon to do it.
  • If you take a medicine that prevents blood clots, your doctor may tell you to stop taking it before your surgery. Or your doctor may tell you to keep taking it. (These medicines include aspirin and other blood thinners.) Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • Make sure your doctor and the hospital have a copy of your advance directive. If you don’t have one, you may want to prepare one. It lets others know your health care wishes. It’s a good thing to have before any type of surgery or procedure.

After a laparotomy: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have sudden chest pain and shortness of breath, or you cough up blood.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have pain that does not get better after you take pain medicine.
  • You have nausea and vomiting and cannot drink fluids, or you are no longer passing gas.
  • You have loose staples or stitches, or your incision comes open.
  • Bright red blood has soaked through the bandage over your incision.
  • You have signs of a blood clot in your leg (called a deep vein thrombosis), such as:
    • Pain in your calf, back of the knee, thigh, or groin.
    • A color change on the leg or groin. The skin may be reddish or purplish, depending on your usual skin color.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness around your incision.
    • Red streaks leading from the incision.
    • Pus draining from the incision.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

After a laparotomy: Overview

A laparotomy (say "lap-uh-RAW-tuh-mee") is surgery done through a cut (incision) in your belly. The doctor operated inside your body through this incision.

After the surgery, you may feel weak and tired. You may have nausea or vomiting. It's common to have some pain in your belly and around your incision. The pain should get better over the next few weeks. Many people are able to return to their regular activities within a few weeks after surgery. Your bowel movements may not be regular for several weeks after the surgery.

What happens on the day of a laparotomy?

  • Follow the instructions exactly about when to stop eating and drinking. If you don't, your surgery may be canceled. If your doctor told you to take your medicines on the day of surgery, take them with only a sip of water.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions about when to bathe or shower before your surgery. Do not apply lotions, perfumes, deodorants, or nail polish.
  • Do not shave the surgical site yourself.
  • Take off all jewelry and piercings. And take out contact lenses, if you wear them.

At the hospital or surgery center

  • Bring a picture ID.
  • The area for surgery is often marked to make sure there are no errors.
  • You will be kept comfortable and safe by your anesthesia provider. You will be asleep during the surgery.
  • How long the surgery will take depends on the type of surgery being done.

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