A laparoscopy is an outpatient surgery usually performed under general anesthesia. Most laparoscopies are completed in a hospital, but some physicians utilize freestanding outpatient surgery centers.

During a laparoscopy, the physician inserts a small fiberoptic telescope into the abdominal cavity through an incision made in the patient’s umbilical area (belly button). Most physicians initially distend the abdomen using carbon dioxide gas with a needle (Veres needle) to create what is called a pneumoperitoneum. A trocar—an instrument with a diameter similar to that of a pencil— is then passed through the umbilicus, allowing for introduction of the telescope (called a laparoscope) into the abdomen.

Using the laparoscope, a gynecologic surgeon can inspect the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.The appendix and upper abdomen are carefully inspected as well. Additional instruments may be inserted into the abdomen through incisions (ports) made along the hairline above the pubic bone. For example, the physician may use graspers, scissors, or suction irrigators to rinse the tissue and remove blood and fluids as needed. Some physicians insert a slightly larger telescope through the umbilical port, which allows them to use a carbon dioxide laser to cut scar tissue or destroy implants of endometriosis. Besides the laser, other instruments can be used to cut or burn abnormalities such as endometriosis or scar tissue.

During a laparoscopy, the physician typically introduces a blue dye into the uterine cavity while directly visualizing the fallopian tubes. If the fallopian tubes are patent (open) but are located in an abnormal location because of scar tissue, then the surgeon may try to free the fallopian tubes to improve the patient’s fertility.

If abnormal ovarian cysts such as endometriomas are present, then the physician may remove them during the course of the laparoscopy or, if necessary, perform a laparotomy. A laparotomy is a surgery performed through a larger incision, usually made along the bikini line. It may require the patient to stay 1 to 3 days in the hospital following the surgery. In addition, a laparotomy requires a longer recovery period and may create more new scar tissue than laparoscopic surgery.

Certain abnormalities cannot be easily treated through laparoscopy, including exceedingly large ovarian cysts, ovarian cysts that are suspicious for cancer, and fibroids that are deeply embedded in the wall of the uterus. Patients with these problems are probably better served by a laparotomy.

For many years, all women who were seeking fertility care underwent laparoscopy as part of the initial evaluation. In recent times, this practice has faded with increased utilization of IVF. Although IVF has essentially replaced tubal surgery in patients with tubal factor infertility, laparoscopy is still used to correct certain problems in patients prior to undergoing IVF. For patients uninterested in IVF (for religious, financial or philosophical reasons), laparoscopy may still represent an important part of their diagnostic and therapeutic options. Complications of laparoscopy are rare but can include injury to the bowel, bladder, and blood vessels; a need for laparotomy; and even death.