Laparoscopic Right Adrenalectomy 

Updated: May 05, 2021
Author: William W Hope, MD; Chief Editor: Kurt E Roberts, MD 



Perhaps no organ is better suited for laparoscopic surgery than the adrenal gland, by reason of its small size and its relatively difficult location in the retroperitoneum, which requires a large open excision for extraction. Since the first description of laparoscopic adrenalectomy by Gagner et al in 1992,[1]  this approach has become increasingly used. It is now the technique of choice for most benign adrenal lesions because of the decreased blood loss, lower morbidity, shorter hospitalization, faster recovery, and overall cost-effectiveness in comparison with the open approach.[2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11]

Because of the anatomic differences between right and left adrenal glands—most notably, different venous drainage patterns—surgical approaches are different for right and left adrenalectomy. Although laparoscopic right adrenalectomy is generally believed to be more difficult because of the proximity of dissection to the inferior vena cava (IVC) and duodenum and the short adrenal vein, one review comparing laparoscopic left and right adrenalectomies reported no differences in complication or conversion rates, with shorter operating times for the right.[12]  One study found the risk of bleeding to be comparable for the two procedures, except in cases of pheochromocytoma, metastasis, or masses larger than 5 cm.[13]

Nevertheless, surgeons must recognize that technical strategies and anatomy differ between laparoscopic right and left adrenalectomies.


The indications for laparoscopic adrenalectomy have evolved since its initial description and subsequent wide adoption. Current indications are the same for laparoscopic adrenalectomy as for open surgery, except in cases of suspected or confirmed adrenocortical carcinoma.

Traditionally, open surgery was recommended for patients with suspected or known primary adrenal carcinoma because of the aggressive nature of the disease and the improved ability to perform an en-bloc resection.[14, 15]  This recommendation came to be debated, with many reports at high-volume centers showing equal effectiveness of laparoscopic adrenal resection[16, 17, 18]  and others continuing to recommend open surgery.[19, 20]  The 2013 guidelines from the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons (SAGES) recommended an open approach until more robust data confirm the efficacy of laparoscopic adrenalectomy for adrenal carcinoma.[21]

A retrospective study of 201 patients who underwent either minimally invasive or open surgical adrenalectomy for adrenocortical carcinoma at 13 tertiary care cancer centers found that the minimally invasive approach was an acceptable alternative for tumors no larger than 10 cm.[22] However, the authors recommended that open adrenalectomy be performed in cases where there is preoperative or intraoperative evidence of local invasion or where enlarged lymph nodes are noted, regardless of size.

A commonly accepted indication for laparoscopic adrenalectomy is hormonally active tumors, including aldosteronomas, pheochromocytomas, and cortisol-producing adrenal tumors. Other indications involve size criteria and include nonfunctioning tumors less than 4-6 cm in diameter and smaller nonfunctioning tumors with rapid or progressive growth. Although no definitive size criteria for removal of nonfunctioning adrenal masses exist, it is well accepted that tumors larger than 6 cm should be removed because of an increased incidence of cancer with increasing size.[23]

Typically, nonfunctioning tumors smaller than 4 cm can be monitored with serial imaging; these are unlikely to be malignant. Patients with nonfunctioning tumors 4-6 cm in size should be presented with the options of serial imaging or laparoscopic adrenalectomy. The decision regarding treatment should be individualized. Some authors maintain that 6 cm need not be considered an upper size limit for transperitoneal laparoscopic adrenalectomy and that lesions larger than this can be safely and effectively treated with this procedure.[24]

Patients with a solitary adrenal metastasis and no evidence of other metastatic disease are also candidates for laparoscopic adrenalectomy.[25, 26, 27]


A few absolute contraindications for laparoscopic adrenalectomy exist, including the following:

  • Uncontrolled coagulopathy
  • Severe cardiopulmonary disease
  • Presence of a locally advanced tumor
  • Medically untreated pheochromocytoma

Relative contraindications for the laparoscopic transperitoneal approach include patients who have had extensive previous abdominal surgery and pregnant patients. In patients with previous abdominal surgery, a laparoscopic retroperitoneal approach may be beneficial.

Technical Considerations


The adrenal glands, also known as suprarenal glands, belong to the endocrine system. (See Suprarenal (Adrenal) Gland Anatomy.) They are a pair of triangular-shaped glands, each about 5 cm (2 in.) long and 2.5 cm (1 in.) wide, that sit on top of the kidneys. The suprarenal glands are responsible for the release of hormones that regulate metabolism, immune system function, and the salt-water balance in the bloodstream; they also aid in the body’s response to stress.

Each suprarenal gland is composed of two distinct tissues: the suprarenal cortex and the suprarenal medulla. The suprarenal cortex serves as the outer layer of the suprarenal gland, and the suprarenal medulla serves as the inner layer. These two major regions are encapsulated by connective tissue known as the capsule.

Complication prevention

Hemorrhage from the adrenal vein or IVC is one of the most feared complications of a laparoscopic right adrenalectomy. If bleeding from the adrenal vein or IVC is suspected, direct pressure usually tamponades it. During this time, planning for permanent control either by a laparoscopic or open approach can be done.

Although many arterial branches supply the adrenal gland, most can be well controlled by using electrosurgical devices. When manipulating and removing the adrenal gland, caution must be used not to disrupt the capsule, as this can cause bleeding and potential spillage of malignant cells. Although bleeding from the adrenal gland itself usually is not hemodynamically significant, it often is a nuisance, disrupting visualization for the finer dissection and making it difficult to find the correct surgical planes.

In patients with functional tumors, consultation with an endocrinologist and an anesthesiologist is crucial for adequately preparing patients for surgery and avoiding intraoperative crises, most notably severe hypertension. Alpha blockade should be given to all patients with pheochromocytoma before surgery, followed by beta blockade only in patients with tachycardia.


Periprocedural Care


A standard laparoscopic tray, including laparoscopic graspers and scissors, is used for a laparoscopic right adrenalectomy. A laparoscopic right-angle dissector, laparoscopic Kittner, and hook electrocautery are often helpful in the dissection of the inferior vena cava (IVC) and the adrenal vein. A laparoscopic suction/irrigator is often required to ensure adequate visualization during dissection and after gland removal to ensure hemostasis. 

Other instruments that may be employed, depending on individual preferences, include the following:

  • Liver retractor
  • Specimen retrieval bag
  • Electrosurgical instrument

The authors' preference for electrosurgical instruments include the Harmonic Scalpel (Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Cincinnati, OH) or the LigaSure (Valleylab, Boulder, CO); however, other devices—such as the Gyrus PKS Cutting Forceps (Gyrus ACMI, Maple Grove, MN), the EnSeal Tissue Sealing and Hemostasis System (SurgRx, Redwood City, CA), or the Thunderbeat[28] (Olympus, Center Valley, PA)—can be used, depending on the surgeon's preference.

A 10-mm clip applier is often used to ligate the adrenal vein, but in some cases, a vascular-load endoscopic stapling device may be necessary.

Patient Preparation


General anesthesia is required for laparoscopic adrenalectomy, with adjuncts for pain management (eg, an epidural or subcutaneous local anesthetic pain pump) left to the discretion of the surgeon and anesthesiologist. Constant communication with the anesthesiologist is essential in patients with hormonally or vasoactive tumors. Appropriate intraoperative monitoring includes an arterial line and a urinary catheter. Careful preoperative management and control of the physiologic effects of hormonally or vasoactive tumors should involve an endocrinologist’s expertise.

Patients with pheochromocytoma should undergo alpha blockade at least 7-10 days before surgery. If tachycardia persists, then beta blockade should also be instituted after appropriate alpha blockade. Remember that beta blockade should not be used before alpha blockade is implemented, because of the potential for unopposed alpha stimulation, which could lead to marked hypertension.

In patients with hypercortisolism, stress doses of steroids should be administered before and after surgery. Again, a team concept involving anesthesia and endocrinology is crucial for optimal outcomes in patients with vasoactive tumors.

Before surgery, patients with aldosteronomas should have hypokalemia corrected, and blood pressure should be adequately controlled. Spironolactone, an aldosterone antagonist, is often given preoperatively to assist with blood pressure control.

A urinary catheter, an orogastric tube, and sequential compression devices are placed before positioning and turning. Appropriate antibiotics, usually a first-generation cephalosporin, are administered before incision. Most patients, with attention to appropriate selection, receive pharmacologic deep vein thrombosis (DVT) prophylaxis.


For a laparoscopic transperitoneal right adrenalectomy, the patient is placed in the left lateral decubitus or semilateral decubitus position, ranging from 45º to 70º. The authors prefer using a beanbag mattress, but a gel roll will suffice. The patient’s umbilicus should be near the joint in the table to allow for flexing of the table to improve flank exposure. Safety straps and tape are used to securely position the patient, and all pressure points should be padded to prevent nerve compression injuries.

The patient’s right arm is placed on an arm rest and should be adequately padded. A shoulder roll is also placed. Reverse Trendelenburg positioning can also help with exposure. The surgeon and assistant usually stand on the patient’s left side with the video monitors above the right and left sides of the bed; however, this can be individualized in accordance with the surgeon's preference.

Monitoring & Follow-up

Long-term monitoring after laparoscopic adrenalectomy depends on the indication for surgery and the postoperative diagnosis. Patients who have had functional tumors removed are usually followed by an endocrinologist. In patients who have undergone removal of a pheochromocytoma, plasma fractionated metanephrines should be checked postoperatively and then annually.

In patients undergoing adrenalectomy for malignancy or metastasis, long-term follow-up should be coordinated with medical oncology.



Approach Considerations

Three different surgical approaches have been described for laparoscopic adrenalectomy, as follows[29, 30, 31] :

  • Transabdominal lateral flank approach
  • Anterior transabdominal approach
  • Retroperitoneal approach

Although each technique has its merits and proponents, the transabdominal lateral flank approach is the one that currently is most often used; it is the focus of the following discussion.

Various authors have also reported on the use of single-incision techniques, as well as robotic-assisted approaches.[32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38]  A minilaparoscopic adrenalectomy combined with transgastric specimen extraction has been described.[39]

Transabdominal Lateral Flank Approach

Port positioning and laparoscopic access

Laparoscopic access may be obtained via an open or a closed technique, depending on the surgeon's preference and expertise. The authors' preference is to place a Veress needle just below the costal margin and preinsufflate the abdominal cavity. This is followed by optical trocar entry with a 5-mm trocar at the midclavicular line, approximately two fingerbreadths below the costal margin. This 5-mm trocar can be later "upsized" to an 11-mm trocar.

An alternative is an open cutdown at this area; however, the incision needed for this usually requires the placement of a 10- to 12-mm trocar or balloon-type trocar to prevent leakage of pneumoperitoneum. Four laparoscopic ports placed in the right subcostal region are typically required for the transabdominal lateral flank approach to laparoscopic right adrenalectomy.

Port positioning and size vary and are surgeon-dependent. However, at least one 11- to 12-mm port is required to accommodate a clip applier or an endoscopic stapler. The remaining ports may be 5 mm. Our typical port placement involves a 10- to 12-mm trocar placed in the subcostal region at the anterior axillary line (camera port), a 10- to 12-mm trocar in the subcostal region at the midclavicular line (surgeon’s right-hand working port), a 5-mm trocar in the subcostal region just to the right of the umbilicus (liver retraction), and a 5-mm trocar in the posterior axillary line subcostally (surgeon’s left-hand working port). (See the images below.)

Port positioning for laparoscopic right adrenalect Port positioning for laparoscopic right adrenalectomy
Port positioning for laparoscopic right adrenalect Port positioning for laparoscopic right adrenalectomy

Alternatively, the surgeon can use the two "inside" ports for working ports and have the camera coming in from the port in the posterior axillary line.

Liver retraction and dissection

After safe laparoscopic access and port placement, diagnostic laparoscopy is performed to rule out other pathologic or anatomic abnormalities. At this time, attention is focused to the right upper quadrant as the liver is retracted from the port just lateral to the xiphoid. Liver retraction may be performed with a blunt grasper, a fan retractor, kite or snake-type retractors, or a Nathanson liver retractor. The liver is mobilized anteriorly and medially by incising the retroperitoneal attachments medially and then the triangular ligament to the level of the diaphragm (see the image and video below.)

Mobilization of the liver with ultrasonic coagulat Mobilization of the liver with ultrasonic coagulation shears
Laparoscopic right adrenalectomy: Liver retraction and dissection. Video courtesy of William W Hope, MD.

Adequately mobilizing the liver by means of continued cephalad retraction with the liver retractor is crucial because the adrenal gland and vein are usually more cephalad than most surgeons appreciate. Mobilizing the hepatic flexure of the colon is usually not necessary; however, if the hepatic flexure is obscuring the view or if injury during instrument exchange is a concern, it can be mobilized inferiorly and medially with sharp dissection. The extent of dissection of the ascending colon and hepatic flexure varies, depending on the anatomy of the patient and the size of the adrenal tumor.

At this time, if the adrenal is not visualized, it is often helpful to start the dissection on the inferior vena cava (IVC), which can be a good landmark during the case (see the video below).

Laparoscopic right adrenalectomy. Video courtesy of William W Hope, MD.

The dissection of the IVC should start just above the renal vessels, which are often visible and then move cephalad. Intraoperative laparoscopic ultrasonography (US) may also be helpful for identifying a hard-to-locate gland or evaluating the venous anatomy. Dissection of the IVC can be performed sharply with laparoscopic shears or with a hook electrocautery.

The surgeon must appreciate that the duodenum is in close proximity during this dissection and may be mobilized medially to provide better visualization if needed or to ensure that no iatrogenic injuries occur during dissection. Again, if the adrenal vein or gland is difficult to find, it is usually more cephalad, and further mobilization and retraction of the liver are needed.

When the IVC is visible, the dissection progresses superiorly toward the liver. If the peritoneum on the inferior border of the liver was not previously divided, then further dissection is needed and is started at the IVC and carried out laterally (see the video below).

Laparoscopic right adrenalectomy. Video courtesy of William W Hope, MD.

At this time, the liver retractor can be replaced to allow more upward retraction and a better view of the adrenal gland. Next, the adrenal vein should be visualized and carefully dissected (see video below).

Laparoscopic right adrenalectomy. Video courtesy of William W Hope, MD.

Adrenal vein dissection and ligation

Extreme caution should be used in dissecting out the right adrenal vein; it is often short and broad, and hemorrhage resulting from injury in this area can be very difficult to control. The authors' practice is to use a right-angle dissector or Maryland dissector to gently dissect the vessel at the junction with the IVC (see the video below).

Laparoscopic right adrenalectomy. Video courtesy of William W Hope, MD.

After the junction of the adrenal vein and the IVC has been dissected, a 10-mm "safety clip" can be placed at this junction. This allows further dissection of the vein and ensures that potential injury to the vein will be easier to control. After the vein is adequately dissected, two or three 10-mm clips are placed on the proximal side (toward the IVC), and one or two are placed on the distal side (see the video below).

Laparoscopic right adrenalectomy. Video courtesy of William W Hope, MD.

Again, the adrenal vein is usually quite short, and thus accurate clip placement is vital; sometimes the distal clip is placed onto the adrenal gland. After the adrenal vein is adequately clipped, it is transected with scissors between the clips. Alternatively, if the adrenal vein is long enough and the dissection is adequate, an endoscopic stapler may be used to ligate the adrenal vein, though this can be challenging, given the anatomy and the location of the targeted adrenal vein.

Although still investigational, a series of laparoscopic adrenalectomies without the use of clips or sutures for hemostasis was reported.[40]  In this series, 32 patients underwent laparoscopic adrenalectomy with the LigaSure device for hemostasis and dissection, though the authors did not specifically isolate the adrenal vein. There was minimal blood loss and no major bleeding complications .

Adrenal gland dissection

After the adrenal gland is controlled and divided, the remainder of the operation focuses on the dissection of the adrenal gland away from its remaining attachments. Great care must be taken not to disrupt or damage the adrenal capsule, especially in the setting of a pheochromocytoma or malignant neoplasm. Avoid grasping the adrenal gland. Instead, the periadrenal fat or overlying peritoneum can be grasped, or the gland can be bluntly retracted. Although numerous small arterial branches supply the adrenal gland, these are usually well controlled by using an electrosurgical device. If a larger vessel is encountered, clips can be used as well (see the video below).

Laparoscopic right adrenalectomy: Adrenal gland removal. Video courtesy of William W Hope, MD.

Adrenal gland removal and closure

After the adrenal gland has been completely dissected from its attachments and is free, it is placed in a specimen retrieval bag and removed through a 10-mm trocar. Depending on the size of the gland/tumor, the incision may have to be enlarged. Following gland removal, the adrenal bed is inspected for hemostasis, with the pneumoperitoneum pressure decreased to 6-8 mm Hg.

The adrenal vein clips/staples are inspected to ensure adequate ligation, and the area is irrigated and aspirated. Careful inspection of the area of dissection and surrounding areas is performed to identify inadvertent injuries. The 10-mm ports can then be closed, either laparoscopically with a suture passer or in an open fashion with an absorbable or permanent suture. The 5-mm trocars are removed under direct vision to ensure hemostasis, and the abdomen is desufflated. The port sites are closed with an absorbable suture, and surgical glue or dressings is applied.

Postoperative Care

Postoperatively, patients are usually transferred to a regular surgical floor unless there are concerns about hemodynamic issues, cardiopulmonary status, or intraoperative complications. Currently, laparoscopic right adrenalectomy is an inpatient procedure; however, some reports have detailed performing this operation as an outpatient procedure on a small number of patients in specialized units.[41, 42]

A clear liquid diet can be started when the patient is awake and alert, and diet can be advanced as tolerated. Pain control is initiated with intravenous narcotics is begun but often can be rapidly transitioned to oral analgesics because of the limited amount of pain experienced by the patient. A complete blood count is obtained on postoperative day 1 with electrolyte monitoring as clinically indicated. Patients are usually discharged 24-48 hours after surgery.

Routine office follow-up is typically done 2-3 weeks after discharge, depending on the surgeon's preference, and wound complications are rarely encountered. In patients with Cushing syndrome, postoperative steroid management is usually coordinated in consultation with endocrinology.


The most serious and feared complication of a laparoscopic right adrenalectomy is hemorrhage from the adrenal vein or the IVC, which can cause severe blood loss and may necessitate conversion to an open procedure. Control of the bleeding with direct pressure can often minimize the bleeding and, depending on the injury, may be handled laparoscopically by means of suturing or the use of hemostatic agents. If the injury is more complex, direct pressure may be placed while an open incision is made.

Other intraoperative complications are similar to those seen with other laparoscopic procedures and include injuries adjacent to structures such as the colon, small bowel and duodenum, liver, gallbladder, and diaphragm.[43]

Additional complications encountered during laparoscopic adrenalectomy include those related to hormonally active tumors, most notably pheochromocytoma. Failure to adequately prepare patients with pheochromocytoma preoperatively can result in severe hypertensive crisis intraoperatively. Adrenal insufficiency may occur in patients with hypercortisolism who do not receive appropriate stress-dose steroids.

One large registry found that surgeon inexperience, greater patient age, higher body mass index (BMI), larger tumor size, and the presence of pheochromocytoma are risk factors for complications associated with laparoscopic adrenalectomy.[44] If the surgeon is at an early point along the learning curve, these factors should be taken into account in deciding on operative planning.