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.