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Gallbladder removal surgery explained

If you have gallstones that are causing you problems, a very simple surgical procedure may be the best treatment option.


The gallbladder is a small organ located in the upper right part of the tummy. It stores the bile produced by the liver that helps to break down fatty foods however it’s actually not essential for digestion. If you have gallstones that can’t be dissolved by prescribed tablets (most can’t), having it removed is often the most effective treatment. Here we explain the simple, commonly performed gallbladder removal surgery, and the recovery.

The gallbladder, gallstones and symptoms

The gallbladder is a pouch that stores liquid called bile that’s produced by the liver to aid the breakdown of fatty foods. Sometimes the substances that make up the bile that is stored in the gall bladder can become imbalanced and this can result in gallstones forming. Often, they’ll cause no problems at all, but they can ‘block the flow of bile and irritate the gallbladder (acute cholecystitis) or pancreas (acute pancreatitis)’1. Gallstones can be very painful, make you feel sick and give you jaundice. In these cases, your surgeon may recommend removing the gallbladder.

Gallbladder removal surgery – the procedure

There are two ways your surgeon can remove your gallbladder – laparoscopic cholecystectomy and open cholecystectomy. It’s worth noting that you will be under general anaesthetic for your surgery, regardless of which procedure you have.

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy explained

Laparoscopic means keyhole and it’s a method by which tiny cameras and surgical instruments are inserted through several, very small surgical incisions, rather than one large incision. Your surgeon will make several of these small cuts in your abdomen and usually start by gently inflating your abdomen with carbon dioxide to create more space in which to operate.

The operation itself involves your surgeon separating the gallbladder from the liver and ‘freeing up’ the cystic duct and artery so that it can be removed. This procedure leaves minimal scarring as the incisions are tiny. Any swelling and bruising usually goes away within one to four weeks, and any redness along the incisions will usually fade to a shade not too dissimilar from your normal skin tone within a few months.

Open cholecystectomy explained

Just as with keyhole surgery, your surgeon will separate your gallbladder from the liver. But instead of doing this through several small incisions, your surgeon will make one long incision in your abdomen. Open surgery is sometimes used if, for example, you’ve got a lot of scar tissue on your abdomen from previous surgery. Your surgeon may also need to switch from keyhole to open if s/he doesn’t have a clear view of your gallbladder to remove it safely. You will probably notice more swelling and bruising and you will have a longer scar. But this will fade over time, usually to a colour and texture not too dissimilar from your natural skin colour.

The recovery period

If you have keyhole surgery, you may be able to leave hospital the same day as your operation, or the next day. Every person is different so how long you stay depends on how your surgery went, your age and your general health. If you have open surgery, you’ll most likely be in hospital for a bit longer – usually three to five days. It can take a few weeks to feel back to your normal self so you should plan to take it easy for as long as possible afterwards, especially if your lifestyle is particularly active or your job particularly manual.

Your surgeon will usually recommend that you take two to four weeks off work and that you eat a healthy, balanced diet. Exercise is also very important for recovery, but talk to your GP before you start to get advice on what types of exercises you should do and at what intensity, during your recovery.

Living without your gallbladder

You can live a perfectly normal, healthy life without a gallbladder. The difference is that instead of your bile being stored in a gallbladder, it drips steadily into the digestive system when produced by the liver. You should aim to eat a balanced diet as part of ensuring you live a healthy life. In particular, try to reduce your caffeine intake, or stop it completely if you can. Caffeine is found in tea, some carbonated drinks and some chocolate bars, not just in coffee. You might find that particularly rich or spicy foods don’t make you feel good – if this is the case, try to avoid these foods and instead gradually increase the amount of fibre you eat. Good foods to include in your diet are fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain variations of bread, pasta and rice, and seeds, oats and nuts.

You can find some more information about gallbladder removal surgery in our consultant Q&A.


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