Abdominal Stab Wound Exploration Technique

Updated: May 04, 2018
  • Author: Juan L Poggio, MD, MS, FACS, FASCRS; Chief Editor: Erik D Schraga, MD  more...
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Obtain informed consent for the procedure.

Gather and check equipment.

Position the patient supine and elevate the operating table or stretcher to an appropriate height.

Shave and prepare the area around the stab wound. The maintenance of a sterile field is essential (see the video below).

Sterile field.

Local wound exploration requires an operator and an assistant. Both the operator and assistant should scrub, as for any surgical procedure.

Liberally infiltrate local anesthetic with epinephrine around the wound, using standard surgical technique. Adequate hemostasis is necessary to facilitate direct visualization of the tract of the wound and to prevent further hemorrhage in wounds that penetrate the peritoneum. Also, the wound may need to be extended, which may result in further bleeding. For both these reasons, lidocaine with epinephrine is preferred as the anesthetic agent. Achieving poor hemostasis has been associated with subsequent false-positive diagnostic peritoneal lavage (DPL) results and unnecessary laparotomy. Do not exceed the maximum dose of lidocaine.

Most stab wounds are small and need to be extended with a scalpel to allow visualization of the underlying fascia. To optimize subsequent wound healing and cosmetic result, midline wounds should be extended vertically and lateral wounds should be extended horizontally (see the videos below) along natural skin lines. The required length of extension is determined by the depth of subcutaneous fat. Wounds heal from the sides rather than the ends; hence, lengthening the wound does not affect the repair process.

Anesthetize the wound.
Midline wound: Extend vertically.

The assistant uses the retractors to visualize the depths of the wound (see video below). Diathermy is a useful aid in the maintenance of hemostasis.

Lateral wound: Extend horizontally.

Appreciation of the anatomy of the anterior abdominal wall at different levels is essential. The procedure cannot be safely completed if you do not know which layer you are exploring and what lies immediately beneath it (see video and images below).

Visualize depths of the wound and maintain hemostasis.
Transverse section of the anterior abdominal wall Transverse section of the anterior abdominal wall above the arcuate line.
Transverse section of the anterior abdominal wall Transverse section of the anterior abdominal wall below the arcuate line.

Further explore the wound under direct vision, taking care to identify the fascial layers and the musculature. Breach of the anterior rectus fascia requires extension of the fascial defect. This can be achieved with a scalpel, with dissecting scissors, or with diathermy. This allows inspection of the underlying muscle and the posterior layer of the rectus sheath. There is no posterior layer of rectus sheath below the arcuate line, but the rectus fascial defect is still extended to allow inspection of the underlying muscle and transversalis fascia.

The goal of exploration is to determine the end point of the tract (see video below). This is not always easy, especially in more lateral wounds. The fascial planes are more difficult to identify laterally. Following the tract through muscle can be challenging. If the posterior rectus fascia or transversalis fascia is adequately visualized and is intact, the patient does not have an intra-abdominal injury. After adequate wound care, the patient can be discharged from the emergency department.

Explore under direct vision.

If the posterior rectus fascia or the transversalis fascia is penetrated, the local wound exploration findings are positive (see video below). The frequency of peritoneal injury is high in patients with positive findings. Assessing the integrity of the parietal peritoneum itself is technically difficult, and exploring at this level risks converting a nonpenetrating wound into a wound that breaches the peritoneum. If breach of the peritoneum cannot be confidently excluded, the patient requires further assessment and investigation.

Nonpenetrating wound: External oblique muscle inta Nonpenetrating wound: External oblique muscle intact in base of wound.

Patients who require further investigation may undergo DPL. The wound should be temporarily packed with dry gauze and a sterile dressing until the lavage is completed. This packing helps prevent further hemorrhage into the peritoneum from the wound. A DPL with positive findings further delineates patients who are more likely to have an intra-abdominal injury that requires surgical intervention. The stomach and bladder must be decompressed before DPL.

Penetrating midline wound. Penetrating midline wound.
Penetrating lateral wound. (The exploration of thi Penetrating lateral wound. (The exploration of this wound clearly determined that the stomach had been penetrated. Therefore, the patient did not require diagnostic peritoneal lavage [DPL], as laparotomy was already indicated. During laparotomy, a hole in the stomach and 2 holes in the small bowel were repaired. The patient had an uneventful postoperative course and was discharged from the hospital 3 days later.)

The wound is then thoroughly irrigated with saline and closed in layers. Hemostasis and sound surgical technique prevent subsequent wound complications. The sheath is closed with strong absorbable suture (PDS 0 or Vicryl 0). Muscle need only be repaired if the defect is large. If muscle repair is necessary, interrupted absorbable sutures (Vicryl 2-0) are used (see video below). In individuals who are obese, the subcutaneous fat can be approximated with absorbable sutures. The wound edges rarely require debridement before skin closure. The skin is closed with skin clips, interrupted nonabsorbable sutures, or continuous subcuticular sutures. Some authors have advocated suturing the surgical extension wound but leaving the stab wound to heal by secondary intention to minimize the risk of infection. Unless the wound is markedly contaminated, this is unnecessary.

Suture wound in layers. (This patient sustained a nonpenetrating stab wound to the abdomen. After the wound was repaired, the patient was discharged from the emergency department, and routine follow-up wound care was arranged with the local clinic.)

Patients with an exploration with negative findings may be discharged home. Antibiotics are not required. Routine surgical wound care is provided.



The critical concept is to determine the end point of the tract under direct vision.

Ensure good lighting.

Ensure hemostasis and adequate anesthesia.

Extend the wound to allow good visualization.

Use retractors and a trained assistant.

Use a hemostat or other instrument as a guard to cut onto when exploring the depths of the wound. This assists with accuracy of dissection and prevents extending the wound at a deeper level than anticipated.

The exploration usually takes 10-15 minutes. Meticulous dissection ultimately saves time.

The exploration of an abdominal wound in patients who are markedly obese can be particularly challenging. In these patients, consider performing the procedure in the operating room with the patient under general anesthesia.

Do not probe the wound with a finger or blunt object, as this can cause further hemorrhage, give a false impression of the tract, distort the anatomy of the wound, and introduce infection into the depths of the wound.

Diathermy simplifies the exploration because it helps maintain hemostasis.

When doubt exists, prudence involves further investigation, observation, or consideration for exploratory laparotomy.