Health A to Z
Gallbladder removal surgery, also known as a cholecystectomy, is a very common procedure.
The gallbladder is a small, pouch-like organ in the upper right part of your tummy. It stores bile, a fluid produced by the liver that helps break down fatty foods.
You don't need a gallbladder, so surgery to take it out is often recommended if you develop any problems with it.
Surgery to remove the gallbladder is usually carried out if you have painful gallstones. These are small stones that can form in the gallbladder as a result of an imbalance in the substances that make up bile.
Gallstones often cause no symptoms and you may not realise you have them, but occasionally they can block the flow of bile and irritate the gallbladder (acute cholecystitis) or pancreas (acute pancreatitis).
This can cause symptoms such as:
Very occasionally it may be possible to take tablets to dissolve gallstones, but surgery to remove the gallbladder is the most effective treatment in the vast majority of cases.
There are two main ways of removing a gallbladder:
Keyhole surgery is used most often because you can leave hospital sooner, recover faster and are left with smaller scars than with an open procedure.
Both techniques are performed under general anaesthetic, which means you'll be asleep during the operation and won't feel any pain while it's carried out.
Read more about how gallbladder removal surgery is performed.
It doesn't usually take long to recover from keyhole surgery to remove your gallbladder.
Most people can leave hospital the same day or the next morning. You'll probably be able to return to most of your normal activities within two weeks.
It takes longer to recover from open surgery. You may need to stay in hospital for three to five days and it could be six to eight weeks before you're feeling back to normal.
Read more about recovering from gallbladder removal surgery.
You can lead a perfectly normal life without a gallbladder.
Your liver will still make enough bile to digest your food but, instead of being stored in the gallbladder, it drips continuously into your digestive system.
You may have been advised to eat a special diet before surgery, but this doesn't need to be continued afterwards. Instead, you should aim to have a generally healthy, balanced diet.
Some people experience problems such as bloating or diarrhoea after surgery, although this usually improves within a few weeks. If you notice certain foods or drinks trigger these symptoms, you may wish to avoid them in the future.
Read more about your diet after gallbladder surgery.
Gallbladder removal surgery is considered to be a safe procedure, but like any type of surgery there is a risk of complications.
Possible complications include:
Speak to your surgeon about the benefits and risks of surgery before your operation.
Read more about the complications of gallbladder removal surgery.
You'll need to have a pre-operative assessment in hospital during the weeks leading up to your gallbladder removal surgery (cholecystectomy).
During this appointment:
There are two main ways gallbladder removal surgery can be performed:
Both procedures are performed under general anaesthetic (where you're asleep) and both are equally effective.
However, keyhole surgery tends to be carried out whenever possible because you can leave hospital sooner, recover faster and are left with smaller scars.
During keyhole gallbladder removal surgery:
You can usually go home later the same day. Recovery typically takes about two weeks.
Read more about recovering from gallbladder removal surgery.
An open procedure may be recommended if you can't have keyhole surgery – for example, because you have a lot of scar tissue from previous surgery on your tummy.
It's also sometimes necessary to turn a keyhole procedure into an open one during the operation if your surgeon is unable to see your gallbladder clearly or remove it safely.
Your surgeon can explain why they feel an open procedure is best for you and if you're due to have keyhole surgery, the risk of it becoming an open procedure should be discussed beforehand.
During open gallbladder removal surgery:
You'll usually need to stay in hospital for a few days afterwards. Recovery typically takes six to eight weeks.
How long it takes to recover from gallbladder removal surgery (cholecystectomy) depends on whether you had a laparoscopic (keyhole) or open procedure.
Most people who have keyhole surgery are able to leave hospital on the same day as the operation. It will usually take around two weeks to return to your normal activities.
After open surgery, you'll usually have to stay in hospital for three to five days and your recovery time will be longer. It can take around six to eight weeks to return to your normal activities.
In either case, you'll need to arrange for someone to take you home from hospital. Someone should also stay with you for at least 24 hours if you go home the same day as your operation, as you may still be feeling the effects of the anaesthetic.
You can live perfectly normally without a gallbladder, so there aren't usually any long-term effects from gallbladder removal surgery.
However, it's common to experience some temporary side effects while you recover, including:
These side effects are completely normal and not usually a cause for concern. You only need to contact your GP, the hospital or NHS 111 for advice if they're particularly severe or persistent.
In many cases, dissolvable stitches will be used to close your wounds. These should start to disappear by themselves within a week or two.
If non-dissolvable stitches were used, you'll usually need to have them removed by a nurse at your GP surgery after 7-10 days. You'll be given an appointment for this before you leave hospital.
You'll be told about how to look after your wound and stitches, including how long any dressings need to stay on, when they should be replaced and when you can start having showers or baths. Read more about caring for your stitches.
There will be scars where the cuts were made in your tummy. These will probably be red and obvious at first, but should fade over time.
Your surgeon can give you specific advice about when you can return to your normal activities. Generally speaking, after keyhole surgery you can:
It can take a bit longer to return to these activities after open gallbladder removal surgery. For example, you may not be able to drive or return to work for around four to eight weeks.
Contact your GP, the hospital or NHS 111 for advice if you experience:
These problems could be a sign of a complication of gallbladder removal surgery.
Removal of the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) is considered a relatively safe procedure, but like all operations there is a small risk of complications.
Some people develop a wound or internal infection after a gallbladder removal.
Signs of a possible infection include increasing pain, swelling or redness, and pus leaking from a wound. See your GP if you develop these symptoms, as you may need a short course of antibiotics.
Bleeding can occur after your operation, although this is rare. If it does occur, it may require a further operation to stop it.
When the gallbladder is removed, special clips are used to seal the tube that connects the gallbladder to the main bile duct. However, bile fluid can occasionally leak out into the tummy (abdomen) after the gallbladder is removed.
Symptoms of a bile leak include tummy pain, feeling sick, a fever and a swollen tummy.
Sometimes this fluid can be drained off. Occasionally, an operation is required to drain the bile and wash out the inside of your tummy.
Bile leakage occurs in around 1% of cases.
In around 1 in 500 cases, the bile duct is damaged during a gallbladder removal.
If this happens during surgery, it may be possible to repair it straight away. In some cases, further surgery is needed after your original operation.
The surgical instruments used to remove the gallbladder can also injure surrounding structures, such as the intestine, bowel and blood vessels.
This type of injury is rare, occurring in around 1 in 1,000 cases, and can usually be repaired at the time of the operation. Sometimes injuries are noticed afterwards and a further operation is needed.
This can be serious because the clot can travel around the body and could block the flow of blood into the lungs (pulmonary embolism).
You may be given special compression stockings to wear after the operation to prevent this happening.
There are several serious complications associated with having a general anaesthetic, but these are very rare.
Complications include allergic reaction and death. Being fit and healthy before your operation reduces the risk of any complications occurring.
Some people experience symptoms similar to those caused by gallstones after surgery, including :
This is known as post-cholecystectomy syndrome (PCS) and it's thought to be caused by bile leaking into areas such as the stomach or by gallstones being left in the bile ducts.
In most cases symptoms are mild and short-lived, but they can persist for many months. If you do have persistent symptoms, you should contact your GP for advice.
You may benefit from a procedure to remove any remaining gallstones, or medication to relieve your symptoms.
Phyllis Long had surgery to remove her gallstones after doctors discovered 19 of them when removing her appendix.
"In 1994, during a medical by my GP, she noticed that I had quite a few gallstones (about seven) and advised that I get them and my gallbladder removed. She said that the condition is called cholecystitis and that once my body had produced the gallstones, my gallbladder would continue to store calcium and produce more. But as the stones weren't affecting my appetite or my general health, I decided against surgery.
"Ten years later, when I was having my appendix out, the surgeon spied the gallstones – all 19 of them. He strongly urged me to have them removed. It wasn't a life-threatening condition, so I wasn't particularly worried about them, but I had been experiencing some symptoms.
"I'd been feeling a lot of pain after eating cream or dairy products. It was a peculiar pain because it was behind my ribs and went right through into my back. The discomfort was becoming more frequent, so when the surgeon confirmed what I had suspected – that I had more gallstones – I decided to take action.
"Ten months later I went in for elective surgery with the surgeon, who removed my appendix. I opted for keyhole surgery, called laparoscopic cholecystectomy, as it was less invasive with a far lower chance of infection and I wouldn't be scarred.
"The surgeon removed 19 gallstones and my gallbladder. I was in the clinic for four or five nights, as I had low blood pressure, but recovered relatively quickly from the surgery. Although movement was slightly restricted for about 10 days, I was able to eat little and often. I was a bit anxious about going to the toilet, but after about 10 days everything returned to normal.
"Since the surgery, the pain caused by eating dairy products has totally disappeared and I haven't experienced any further discomfort. I haven't had any other problems since and am so glad that I finally had the surgery."