Incision locations for a laproscopic cholecystectomy
Incision locations for a laproscopic cholecystectomy

How are gallstones treated?

Silent stones are not treated and should be left alone. Most people who have gallstones are in this category.

If you have symptoms, such as pain, you will probably need to be treated. The most common treatment for gallstones is to remove the gallbladder surgically. Removal of the gallbladder is called a cholecystectomy. In the majority of cases (90%), this surgery can be performed laparoscopically, a minimally invasive technique that results in less post-operative pain and a faster recovery than conventional cholecystectomy.

Gallstones that are found in the bile ducts may need to be removed even if there are no symptoms. This procedure is commonly done with the endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) procedure.

What is a laparoscopic cholecystectomy?

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is known as a minimally invasive procedure because it uses several small incisions instead of one large one. A laparoscope is a narrow tube with a camera. This surgical tool is inserted through one incision. The camera allows your doctor to see your gallbladder on a TV screen. Your gallbladder is then removed through another small incision.

What happens if a laparoscopic cholecystectomy does not work or if there are complications during surgery?

If the patient has certain complications associated with gallstones, the surgeon may need to remove the gallbladder with an open cholecystectomy. This surgery involves an incision in the abdomen and requires a longer hospital stay (three to five days). Medical issues that could lead to open cholecystectomy include:

  • Having severe inflammation of the gallbladder.
  • Experiencing difficulties during an attempted laparoscopic surgery.
  • Having severe cardiac and respiratory issues.
  • Having a late term pregnancy.
  • Experiencing major scarring from a previous surgery.
  • Having a bleeding disorder or liver disease.
  • Having suspected gallbladder cancer, a very rare condition.

What is an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) procedure?

An endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) procedure is another minimally invasive option for removing gallstones. The endoscope is a tube-like tool. Your doctor will need to move it throughout your digestive system during the treatment. The path the endoscope travels is:

  • In the mouth.
  • Down the throat.
  • Through the stomach.
  • Into the duodenum (beginning of the small intestine) where the common bile duct empties its bile.

Once there, the endoscope is used to remove any blockages in the bile duct.

Can I digest food without a gallbladder?

You don't need a gallbladder in order to digest food properly. If your gallbladder is removed, bile will flow directly from your liver through the hepatic duct and the common bile duct to the small intestine. After the surgery, you may experience some softer stools, which generally resolve over time.

Are there any non-surgical treatments for gallstones?

In most cases where gallstones need treatment, your healthcare provider will use a minimally invasive technique to remove the stone. There are medications that can be used to dissolve the stones. However, as minimally invasive methods have advanced, these drugs haven’t been used as often. Dissolving medications can take months—or possibly even years—to get rid of the gallstones. By contrast, a procedure resolves the issue quickly. Using these medications to treat gallstones could be an option if you are unable to have surgery because of another condition. Talk to your doctor about all treatment options and which one is the best fit for you.

What are the complications of gallstones?

There are several complications of a gallstone attack, including:

Gallstones can also cause the gallbladder or bile ducts to become infected. A blockage in the common bile duct can cause jaundice (yellowing of your skin or eyes) or can irritate the pancreas.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy