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Gallbladder removal

Expert reviewer Mr Christian Macutkiewicz, Consultant General and Hepato-Pancreatico-Biliary Surgeon
Next review due May 2025

Gallbladder removal is an operation to take out your gallbladder. It can be done with keyhole surgery or open surgery.

Doctor talking to a patient

About gallbladder removal

Your gallbladder is a small pear-shaped pouch that collects and stores a liquid called bile. Bile is important for digestion and it works in your bowel to help break down fats in food and help your body use some vitamins.

You may need to have your gallbladder removed if you have gallstones that are causing symptoms, or have a disease that affects your gallbladder. For example, if you have polyps or gallbladder cancer.

The operation to remove a gallbladder is called a cholecystectomy (pronounced co-le-sis-tec-tomy). If it’s taken out using keyhole surgery, the operation is called a laparoscopic (pronounced la-paro-sco-pic) cholecystectomy. If you have surgery where a bigger cut is made and your tummy (abdomen) is opened, it’s called an open cholecystectomy.

Preparing for gallbladder removal

Your surgeon will discuss with you what will happen before, during and after your surgery. If you’re unsure about anything, don’t be afraid to ask. No question is too small. It’s important that you feel fully informed and happy to give your consent for the operation to go ahead. Your nurse or surgeon will ask you to sign a consent form.

Your surgeon will explain how you can prepare for your operation.

  • If you smoke, try your best to stop. Smoking increases your chances of getting an infection after surgery, which can slow down your recovery.
  • If you need to, your surgeon may advise you to lose any excess weight before your operation, and to eat a low-fat diet to help prevent pain from gallstones.
  • You may need to wear compression stockings to help prevent blood clots forming in the veins in your legs, which can lead to deep vein thrombosis. You may also need to have an injection of an anti-clotting medicine as well as or instead of wearing compression stockings if you’re staying in hospital overnight.
  • You’ll have gallbladder surgery under general anaesthesia. This means you’ll be asleep during the operation. Anaesthetics can make you sick, so it’s important that you don’t eat or drink anything for six hours before your operation. You can usually drink water up to two hours before but check with your anaesthetist or surgeon and always follow their advice.

If you have keyhole surgery to remove your gallbladder, you can usually go home the same day as your operation. But some people may need to stay in hospital overnight. If you have open surgery, you’ll need to stay in hospital for longer.

Gallbladder removal procedure

It usually takes about an hour to have gallbladder surgery, but this can vary. But sometimes it can take up to two to three hours. Ask your surgeon how long it will take to do your operation. You’ll have gallbladder surgery under general anaesthesia. This means you’ll be asleep during the operation.

Keyhole surgery

If you’re having keyhole surgery, your surgeon will make small cuts in your tummy (abdomen), or one slightly larger cut. They’ll then gently inflate your tummy with carbon dioxide gas to create space and make it easier to see. Your surgeon will pass a laparoscope (a long, thin telescope with a light and camera lens at the tip) through one of the cuts. They’ll be able to see the inside of your tummy on a monitor. Your surgeon will put instruments in through the cuts to take out your gallbladder.

When your surgeon has removed your gallbladder, they’ll allow the carbon dioxide gas to escape, and will remove the laparoscope and other instruments. They’ll close the wounds and may cover them with a dressing.

Open surgery

If you have open surgery, your surgeon will make one larger cut in your tummy to remove your gallbladder. Occasionally, your surgeon may need to switch from a keyhole procedure to open surgery during the operation. Your surgeon will explain this to you before your procedure, when they ask you to give your consent.

Aftercare for gallbladder removal

Pain and discomfort

After your gallbladder is removed, you’ll need to rest until the effects of the anaesthetic have worn off. You’re likely to have some pain and discomfort after the operation once the anaesthetic wears off. Your hospital team will offer you pain relief if you need it.

If you had keyhole surgery, you may have some discomfort caused by the carbon dioxide gas that was put into your tummy (abdomen) during the operation. This can also cause pain in your shoulder, but it will usually get better within a couple of days.

Stitches

If you have small cuts, your surgeon may use stitches that dissolve on their own or glue to close your wounds. If your wounds are closed with non-dissolving stitches, a practice nurse will need to take these out after about seven to 10 days. Make an appointment at your GP surgery for this. Before you go home, ask which type of stitches you’ve had, and when they’ll need to be removed.

You may have a dressing over your wounds, or sometimes cuts may be left without a dressing on them. You don’t need to worry about keeping undressed wounds dry. Sometimes, small dressings may be waterproof. Your nurse will give you advice about how to care for your wounds.

Going home

If you’ve had keyhole surgery as a day procedure, you’ll usually spend a few hours recovering and can then go home as soon as you feel ready. You’ll need to arrange for someone to drive you home. Try to have a friend or relative with you for the first 24 hours after your surgery.

You may be given a date for a follow-up appointment, usually around six weeks after your operation.

You may feel a little tired or emotional after your operation. This is completely normal.

Having a general anaesthetic affects everyone differently. You may find that you get confused, and your memory might be affected too. You might find it difficult to get dressed or do crosswords, for example. This can be temporary or permanent but most people make a full recovery. In the meantime, don’t drive, drink alcohol, operate machinery or sign anything important. Always follow your surgeon’s advice.

Recovery from gallbladder removal

Recovery from gallbladder removal surgery is individual to you.

  • If you’ve had keyhole surgery, you should feel back to normal within a week or so, but it may take longer to make a full recovery.
  • If you had open surgery, it may take longer to recover. It may take around six weeks for you to make a full recovery.

Talk to your surgeon about when you’re likely to get back to your normal routine, and the long-term effects of gallbladder removal. Don’t do too much at once. It’s important to build up gradually and stick to a routine if you can.

Eat healthily, rest when you need to, and don’t smoke as this will help you recover well.

If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

If you take painkillers after your surgery, some of these may make you constipated. Eat plenty of fibre-rich foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, to help.

Diet

If you had gallbladder removal surgery because of gallstones, you don’t need to avoid foods that used to trigger gallstone symptoms. If you still notice any symptoms when you eat these foods, contact your GP because there may be another reason for these.

Driving

You may feel sore for a few days after your surgery and may not feel like driving for at least a week. Check your insurance policy, as some companies won’t insure you for a specific number of weeks after surgery. Don’t drive if you’re taking any painkillers that make you sleepy. You also need to be comfortable when you’re driving and be able to perform an emergency stop. When you go back to driving, build up slowly and stop driving for a few days if you notice any pain or soreness.

Going back to work

You’ll probably be able to go back to work between 10 and 14 days after keyhole surgery. But it will depend on how well you recover and the type of job you do. If you do a lot of heavy lifting, walking or standing in your job, it’s likely to take you longer to get back to work fully. After open surgery, it will take longer to return to work. Ask your surgeon for advice.

Side-effects of gallbladder removal

Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects that you may get after having surgery. Gallbladder surgery can cause some side-effects. These include:

  • pain and discomfort in your tummy (abdomen) and in your shoulder
  • bloating in your tummy
  • diarrhoea (or constipation, for some people)
  • passing wind (farting)
  • feeling tired

If you have any of these symptoms after surgery and they haven’t gone by your follow-up appointment, it’s important to tell your surgeon. If these symptoms are particularly troublesome, speak to your GP or contact your surgeon before your follow-up appointment.

Complications of gallbladder removal

Complications are when problems occur during or after an operation. Most people don’t have any complications from gallbladder surgery. Possible complications of gallbladder surgery include the following.

  • Injury to your bile duct. If one of your bile ducts is damaged, it can cause a blockage or leak in the days after surgery, or even months later. Contact the hospital or your doctor if you have a high temperature, are in pain, feel sick or have jaundice (yellowing skin and eyes). There are ways to repair an injury to your bile duct.
  • Injury to other organs, including your bowel.
  • Postcholecystectomy syndrome, which includes digestive symptoms, such as indigestion, feeling sick and bloating.

If you feel very unwell after your operation, it’s important to get medical help and follow your surgeon’s advice.

Alternatives to gallbladder removal

If you have symptoms from gallstones, the main treatment is gallbladder removal surgery. But there are alternative treatments for gallstones.

For example, your doctor may advise you to make some changes to your lifestyle. Avoid any food or drinks that you notice make pain from gallstones worse. You may need to eat a low-fat diet to help prevent pain from gallstones too.

If tests show that you have gallstones in your bile duct, an alternative treatment may include endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This uses a combination of endoscopy and X-rays to find and treat your gallstones.

If an ERCP isn’t possible, your doctor may recommend a procedure called a percutaneous transhepatic cholangiogram (PTC). In a PTC, your doctor passes a tube through the skin below your ribs, into your liver to remove the gallstones in the bile duct.

It’s possible that you may still need to have an operation afterwards to remove your gallbladder because there may be more gallstones in it.

Frequently asked questions



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  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, May 2022 Expert reviewer Mr Christian Macutkiewicz, Consultant General and Hepato-Pancreatico-Biliary Surgeon
    Next review due May 2025

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