You might need to have a cholecystectomy, surgery to remove your gallbladder, if you have a chronic or persistent gallbladder disease. Gallstones are the most common reason. If you have one, you’ll be in good company. It’s one of the most common procedures performed worldwide. In the U.S., most surgeons offer it as a laparoscopic procedure.
A cholecystectomy is a surgical procedure to remove your gallbladder — the small, hollow organ that stores bile for your digestive system. Gallbladder removal surgery is a common treatment for many types of gallbladder disease. This is because the downsides of having your gallbladder removed are generally fewer than those of the diseases it treats. You can live a healthy life without a gallbladder.
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Cholecystectomy is a common procedure with a typically easy recovery. It’s also one of the first procedures that’s become routinely performed using minimally invasive surgery techniques. These techniques, including laparoscopic surgery and robotic surgery, use very small incisions of a half-inch or less to minimize trauma, pain and recovery time. While an open operation with a larger incision may occasionally be necessary, laparoscopic cholecystectomy is far more common today than open surgery.
You might need gallbladder removal surgery if gallbladder disease:
Unfortunately, this is the case with most of the conditions that can affect your gallbladder, including:
Gallstones are the most common reason for cholecystectomy. While many people live with gallstones and never have problems with them, those who do have problems tend to have them repeatedly. A gallstone that gets stuck anywhere in your biliary tract can block the flow of bile, causing pain and illness. It might block the opening to your gallbladder, your common bile duct or your pancreatic duct.
The most common and recognizable symptom of gallbladder disease is biliary colic. It’s a pattern of pain in your biliary tract (generally in your upper right abdomen) that occurs in episodes, often with nausea. Biliary colic is usually an early sign of biliary disease that’s likely to get worse. When your bile flow stalls completely, you’ll feel intense gallbladder pain that won’t go away until you get medical care.
Other signs of possible gallbladder disease include:
If you have any of these signs or symptoms, your healthcare provider will examine you and conduct the necessary tests to diagnose the cause. They’ll let you know if they recommend cholecystectomy for you.
Gallbladder removal changes the structure of your biliary tract, which affects how your digestive system works. Your gallbladder usually stores extra bile until your small intestine needs it. It contracts to deliver the extra bile when you have a heavy meal to digest. After your cholecystectomy, bile will simply flow directly to your small intestine from your liver, where it’s made, without being stored first.
Most people experience a temporary adjustment period in their digestive systems after gallbladder removal. For the first month or so, you might have more trouble digesting fats and heavier meals. This should gradually improve over time. Most people are able to resume a normal, healthy diet after their recovery. A small number of people develop longer-term digestive difficulties, for unclear reasons.
If you need to have your gallbladder removed, you could have a:
More than 90% of cholecystectomy procedures in the U.S. today are laparoscopic. Surgeons prefer this method most of the time because it’s less invasive, causing less pain and bleeding and leading to a quicker and easier recovery. Robotic cholecystectomy is a variation of laparoscopic cholecystectomy that select hospitals might offer. In robotic surgery, your surgeon operates the robotic instruments from a console.
An open cholecystectomy is the traditional method for removing your gallbladder. It means that your surgeon opens up your abdomen by making one long incision to access your gallbladder. An open cholecystectomy is still a relatively simple and safe procedure, and in certain circumstances, it might be safer. Surgeons sometimes need open access to manage more urgent or complicated conditions.
You might have an open cholecystectomy instead of a laparoscopic cholecystectomy if:
Cholecystectomy is often an elective procedure, meaning you’ll have it before it becomes urgently necessary. Your healthcare provider will explain the nature of your condition and why they recommend the procedure, and you’ll have time to think about it, choose when to have it and prepare. In other circumstances, cholecystectomy is an emergency procedure that occurs without a lot of lead time.
Your healthcare team will:
During a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, your surgeon will:
During an open cholecystectomy, your surgeon will:
A laparoscopic cholecystectomy normally takes about 60 to 90 minutes. An open cholecystectomy takes about one to two hours. Your procedure might take longer if your surgeon needs to add additional steps to treat your condition. For example, sometimes they might add a bile duct exploration to check for gallstones or other issues in your bile ducts. This way, they can treat these issues at the same time.
After surgery, you’ll spend a few hours in a recovery room while you wake up from the anesthesia. You’ll have pain medication as needed. If you had a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, you might be able to go home the same day. If you had an open cholecystectomy, you’ll need to spend a few days recovering in the hospital. Your drain may remain in place for a few days. In some cases, you might go home with it.
Most gallstones develop inside your gallbladder, so removing your gallbladder significantly reduces the chance that you’ll have any more. If gallstones have brought you to the hospital once, they’re likely to do so again. Cholecystectomy is the only treatment that can reliably prevent this. Most people feel it’s easier to have a planned procedure than to expect to have repeat episodes of gallstone emergencies.
There’s always a small risk of complications occurring during surgery. General risks of surgery include:
Specific risks of cholecystectomy include:
The recovery time from a laparoscopic cholecystectomy is about two weeks. Recovery from an open cholecystectomy takes six to eight weeks. If you still have a drain in your wound, your healthcare team will remove it at your next appointment. Most people can return to work after one to two weeks. But if you do a lot of physical activity, you might need to modify your routine until you’re fully recovered.
Healthcare providers recommend that you adjust your diet during your recovery period, for several reasons. The first reason is that surgery and general anesthesia can affect your digestive system. The second reason is that gallbladder removal is a change for your digestive system. Your system won’t be getting the bile it needs in quite the same way as it did before, and it’ll need some time to adjust.
Healthcare providers recommend that you keep your diet simple and bland at first, like you would if you had the flu. The effects of surgery and anesthesia may give you trouble digesting foods with a lot of fiber. The changes to your biliary system may give you some temporary difficulties digesting fats. Your healthcare provider will advise you on how to gradually return to a more normal, healthy diet.
Most people have only short-term side effects during their recovery. These might include:
Your healthcare provider can offer advice on how to manage these short-term conditions.
A small percentage of people experience longer-lasting symptoms after cholecystectomy. Healthcare providers refer to this phenomenon as post-cholecystectomy syndrome. But these symptoms, and their possible causes, are wide-ranging and don’t really describe a single condition. Post-cholecystectomy syndrome is usually a temporary diagnosis that stands in until a provider can make a more specific one.
Reported symptoms include:
Most people have one or a few of these, but not all.
Possible contributing causes include:
Healthcare providers treat these symptoms and conditions on a case-by-case basis.
Your healthcare provider will schedule a follow-up appointment with you a few weeks after your surgery to check on your recovery. But be sure to contact them sooner if you develop symptoms of illness, like:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Thousands of people have successful cholecystectomies each year, most without any complications or side effects. Minimally invasive surgery techniques make recovery easier than ever before. Healthcare providers continue to recommend it as an elective procedure to treat persistent gallbladder diseases, like gallstones. These diseases pose a much higher risk to your health than gallbladder removal does.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/30/2023.
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