Surgical removal of the gallbladder is one of the most common operations performed by the NHS. More than 60,000 gallbladder removals are performed each year.
The medical term for gallbladder removal is cholecystectomy.
Why does my gallbladder need to be removed?
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped pouch in the upper right part of your abdomen (tummy). It stores bile, the digestive fluid produced by the liver that helps to break down fatty foods.
Bile is made from cholesterol, bile salts and waste products. When these substances are out of balance, small, hard stones called gallstones can form. Gallstones often cause no symptoms and in many cases remain undetected.
However, in a small number of cases gallstones can become trapped in a duct (an opening or channel), irritate and inflame the gallbladder, or move out of the gallbladder and into other parts of the body.
This can lead to a range of symptoms, such as:
- a sudden intense pain in your abdomen
- feeling and being sick
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
There are several non-surgical ways to break down gallstones, but they are only effective in around less than 1 in 10 cases and are rarely a viable option.
For most people with painful gallstones, it is recommended that their gallbladder is removed.
What happens during gallbladder removal surgery?
There are two main ways of removing a gallbladder.
Laparoscopic (keyhole) cholecystectomy
This is the most common type of operation to remove your gallbladder. It involves using a tiny camera and surgical instruments that are inserted through small cuts (incisions) in your abdomen.
In open cholecystectomy, the gallbladder is removed through one large incision in your abdomen. This technique is called open surgery. It is a more invasive operation than keyhole surgery. You need to be in hospital for longer and it takes longer to recover.
Open surgery is now usually only used if there are medical reasons why laparoscopic cholecystectomy cannot be safely performed, or if the surgeon decides that it would be safer to switch to open surgery during the procedure (this is known as conversion).
Both techniques are usually carried out under a general anaesthetic, so the person having the operation is asleep during surgery and will feel no pain.
Read more about how a cholecystectomy is performed.
Recovering from gallbladder removal surgery
It doesn't take long to recover from laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Most people can leave hospital the same day or the next morning.
You can get back to normal activities within two weeks and it should be safe to do strenuous exercise after a month.
It takes much longer to recover from an open cholecystectomy. It may be three to five days before you can leave hospital, and it could be six weeks before you are feeling back to normal.
Read more about recovering from a cholecystectomy.
Both laparoscopic and open cholecystectomies are generally safe procedures with a low risk of complications.
The most common complication is infection at the site of the incision, which happens in around 1 in 15 cases.
Read more about the complications of a cholecystectomy.
Living without a gallbladder
You can lead a perfectly normal life without a gallbladder. The organ can be useful, but it's not essential. Your liver will still produce bile to digest food.
However, some people who have had their gallbladder removed have reported symptoms of bloating and diarrhoea after eating fatty or spicy food. If certain foods do trigger symptoms, you may wish to avoid them in the future.
Read more about making changes to your diet after gallbladder surgery.
Some people may also experience pain and indigestion as a result of a stone being left inside a bile duct. This will require further surgery to remove the stone.
Illustration of gallbladder removal
- Bile duct
- Bile duct enters duodenum
Single-incision laparoscopic cholecystectomy
Single-incision laparoscopic cholecystectomy is a newer type of keyhole surgery used to remove the gallbladder.
Only one small cut (incision) is made, which means the scar left is barely visible.
However, this type of surgery is not always available. You may only be able to have this type of surgery if you are willing to pay for private treatment or are taking part in a clinical trial.
Page last reviewed: 15/04/2014
Next review due: 15/04/2016