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Gallbladder removal surgery (cholecystectomy)

An operation to treat painful symptoms of gallstones by removing the gallbladder

Laparoscopic surgery to remove the gallbladder with stones
Gallbladder removal surgery is a procedure to remove the gallbladder. It is also known as a cholecystectomy.

Most gallbladder removal operations are done using keyhole surgery, in which case the surgery is called a laparoscopic cholecystectomy.

The most common reason to have your gallbladder removed is that you have developed gallstones and they are causing you discomfort or pain.

This page will tell you everything you need to know about gallbladder surgery, gallstones, and what to do if you think you need your gallbladder removed.

Gallbladder removal surgery starts from £7,314.*

Our fixed-price packages include the cost of your surgery and all appropriate aftercare appointments. However, any pre-surgery diagnostic tests and your consultant’s outpatient appointment consultation fee are charged separately.

Our flexible payment options help you spread the cost of your payment across a time period that suits you. We offer fixed-term monthly payment plans over 10 months to five years with no deposit required. If you decide to pay over 10 months, you will pay interest-free. If you are paying for a longer period, you will pay 14.9% APR.

If you have private health insurance, gallbladder surgery will usually be covered by your provider. Speak to your insurer directly to find out.

*This is a guide price for patients who are paying for their own treatment. The actual cost of your treatment will be confirmed in writing at the time of booking.

Gallstones are small ‘stones’ that form in the gallbladder, usually made up of cholesterol. They are very common and many people who have them don’t even know, because you can have gallstones without having any symptoms at all.

However, for some people gallstones can cause painful and uncomfortable symptoms, with the most common symptom being abdominal pain. If this is the case for you, your consultant might recommend gallbladder removal surgery.

Gallstones are caused by an imbalance in your bile, which is a liquid made by your liver to help your digestion. If your bile contains too much cholesterol, you might develop gallstones.

If you have high levels of a waste product called bilirubin, found in the gallbladder, this can also lead to gallstones.

Gallstones arise when the patient produces a bile from the liver that has the wrong concentration of bile and cholesterol which then forms the stones. Bile is a liquid produced by the liver to help the digestive process. Gallstones can also form if there are particularly high levels of cholesterol inside the gallbladder or abnormally high levels of a waste product called bilirubin inside the gallbladder.

However, whilst it is known how gallstones are formed, the exact cause or causes of them is not. In recent years, it has been discovered that very rapid weight loss can produce gallstones in the gallbladder and increase symptoms but there is no simple known cause for development of the vast majority of gallstones.

If your gallstones cause symptoms, the most likely thing you will experience is pain in your abdomen (belly). This is often in the top right-hand corner of your abdomen, which is where your gallbladder is located.

The pain may come and go, and commonly it will be worse after eating, especially if you have eaten rich food.

You might also have pain in your back or your shoulder blades, or a pain that makes you feel sick. In severe cases, some people develop a fever and their pain won’t go away. If this is the case, you should seek medical help immediately, just to be safe.

You should also seek medical help if you develop any of the following symptoms:

  • Yellowing of the skin and white of the eyes
  • Itchy skin
  • Diarrhoea
  • Shivering attacks
  • Confusion
  • Loss of appetite
  • A rapid heartbeat

Some people will have a painful episode due to gallstones but then won’t experience any symptoms after that. If your pain or other symptoms don’t recur, you might not need to have surgery.

If, however, you have recurrent pain and discomfort because of your gallstones, surgery is the most effective treatment. It should remove your pain and allow you to eat a normal diet, as well as removing the chance of serious complications as a result of gallstones.

For most people, a cholecystectomy is a safe and effective procedure that removes the difficult symptoms of gallstones without having any effect on the normal functioning of your body.

If you don’t want to or can’t have surgery, there are alternative treatments available. For example, an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) may be able to remove some of your gallstones. However, this is a procedure used more commonly to diagnose the issue, and most people will still need surgery.

You might also be given ursodeoxycholic acid tablets, which can sometimes dissolve gallstones. They tend to work best on gallstones that are small and don’t contain calcium. These tablets need to be taken for a long time – up to two years – and in many cases the gallstones return after the treatment stops. Because of this, most people will still be recommended surgery

In the weeks leading up to your surgery, you’ll have what’s known as a pre-assessment, where we make sure you’re ready to have your surgery. We might invite you in for blood tests or a general health check. We’ll ask about any medications or supplements you’re taking, especially if they haven’t been prescribed by a doctor.

Your surgeon or nurse might also give you advice on how to be as healthy as possible in order to reduce the risk of complications after surgery. For example, you’ll be asked to quit smoking, and you might be encouraged to get your BMI to a healthy level.

You will probably need to avoid food for at least six hours before surgery, possibly up to 12. Our team will give you all the details so you know exactly what to do.

We recommend you arrange for someone to pick you up from hospital after your operation, because you’ll be woozy from the anaesthetic so you won’t be able to drive. If you’d prefer, we can arrange a taxi for you.

Laparoscopic gallbladder surgery

Most gallbladder removal procedures are done using a keyhole method called a laparoscopy. You will be under general anaesthetic, which means you’ll be asleep during the operation.

During a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, a small incision (2-3cm) will be made near your belly button and two or three smaller incisions (1cm or less) will be made on the right side of your tummy.

A small tube will be inserted into one of the smaller incisions and some carbon dioxide gas will be pumped into your abdomen to inflate it, which makes it easier for your surgeon to perform the operation.

A laparoscope, which is a tube with a camera attached, will be passed into your tummy to allow your surgeon to see what’s going on inside. The camera projects to a monitor that the surgeon can watch to guide them during the surgery. This allows them to operate on and remove your gallbladder without ‘opening up’ your tummy.

Once your gallbladder has been safely removed, the gas will be released from your tummy before the incisions are stitched up and covered with dressings.

The operation takes about an hour, and many people are able to go home the same day, though others will need to stay overnight in hospital.

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy with peri-operative cholangiogram

Sometimes gallstones can make their way from the gallbladder into the bile ducts. If your surgeon suspects this might be the case, or just wants to be safe and rule it out, they might recommend something called a peri-operative cholangiogram.

This is a type of X-ray procedure that is used during your operation to check whether gallstones have indeed moved into your bile ducts.

Your surgeon will inject a contrast agent into your bile ducts and then take X-ray scans to check for stones. If found, your surgeon might decide to try and remove them there and then, they might schedule a second operation, or they might recommend a different treatment.

If you need a cholangiogram during your surgery, your consultant will let you know ahead of time.

Open surgery for gallbladder removal

In some cases, it’s not possible to successfully remove the gallbladder using keyhole surgery. If this is the case for you, then you will be recommended open gallbladder removal surgery instead.

As with keyhole surgery, you will be under general anaesthetic, which means you’ll be asleep during the operation.

Your surgeon will make an incision of around 10-20cm into your tummy, through which they can access your abdomen and remove your gallbladder.

The main difference is that it can take a longer time to recover, and you’ll probably need to stay in hospital for between three and five days.

Laparoscopic gallbladder removal recovery timeline

If you have had keyhole surgery, this is normally a day-case procedure, meaning you will probably go home the same day.

However, you will have had general anaesthetic, which doesn’t wear off completely for up to 24 hours. So, you won’t be able to drive yourself home. We recommend that you either arrange for someone to collect you, or get in touch and we’ll book you a taxi home. It can be reassuring to have

someone stay with you overnight for the first night after surgery, or at least to arrange for someone to check in on you.

The first week after surgery, you’ll be in some discomfort and you’ll need to take regular painkillers. Someone from our team will give you advice about this before you leave hospital. If you need any prescriptions, we will sort this for you.

During this first week, we recommend a fairly simple diet.

By the second week, most people are starting to feel back to normal. You shouldn’t need to restrict your food at all. By the end of two weeks, most people feel comfortable returning to work.

Open gallbladder removal surgery recovery timeline

If you have open surgery to remove your gallbladder, recovery will take a bit longer than with keyhole surgery. You will likely stay in hospital for three to five nights after your operation.

Once home, you might still experience pain and discomfort for three or four weeks. We will give you advice on painkillers, including prescriptions if necessary.

Most people feel able to go back to work and to their normal activities after three or four weeks. If you have a manual or active job, you might need to weight six or even eight weeks.

Whichever type of surgery you have to remove your gallbladder, you should make a full recovery and be able to go back to eating as normal.

What happens when your gallbladder is removed?

Some people worry about what will happen when they have gallbladder removal surgery, but actually you can lead a totally normal life without your gallbladder. Your body simply adapts to work without it.

Is gallbladder removal a major surgery?

A cholecystectomy is a very common operation but it is still considered major surgery and therefore has potential risks and complications. So, you won’t be recommended this surgery unless it’s the best option for you.

Still, it’s a relatively quick procedure with a fast recovery time. Most people go home on the same day and feel back to normal after a month or two.

Can you live a normal life after gallbladder removal?

Yes absolutely. Gallbladder removal surgery should let you get back to having a normal life.

You might have a bit of an upset tummy for a whole after, as your digestive system gets used to working without your gallbladder, but these should ease over time.

How long does it take to recover from removal of gallbladder?

Most people who have keyhole surgery to remove their gallbladder can go home on the same day. If you have open surgery, you will usually stay in hospital for a few days.

Once home, it will take a month or two for you to feel completely back to normal. There’s more information in the section above called ‘recovering from gallbladder removal surgery’.

How painful is gallbladder surgery?

You shouldn’t have too much pain when you have your gallbladder removed. You might have a sore tummy, and you’ll probably be a bit sore around the incisions made during surgery. Some people get shoulder pain, which is to do with the gas blown into your abdomen in order to perform surgery.

Our care team will make sure you have any painkillers you need before you go home, and they’ll give you detailed information about what to expect as you recover, so that you know what’s normal and when to give us a call.

Potential risks of any surgery

  •  Bleeding
  • Infection in the surgical wound
  • Unsightly scarring
  • Blood clots
  • Pain

Potential risks of gallbladder removal surgery

  • Retained stones
  •  Persistent pain
  • Leaking of bile or stones
  • Diarrhoea
  • Inflammation in the abdomen
  • Bile duct injur
  • Bowel injury
  • Serious damage to the liver

Potential risks of keyhole gallbladder surgery

  • Developing a hernia near one of the cuts
  • Surgical emphysema
  • Damage to internal organs

Sometimes, patients with gallstones can present with no symptoms and if they have a painful gallstone episode, there may be no recurrence. In such cases, surgery will not be needed as the problem may solve itself without medical intervention.

However, if patients are unable or unwilling to undergo surgery but require treatment, there may be a number of possible non-invasive techniques that could be considered. There is the option of undergoing an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This test is for diagnosing gallstones, but the doctor may be able remove some of the gallstones if they are found at the same time as conducting this procedure. However, patients may still require surgery to remove the gallbladder as an ERCP will usually not be able to remove all of the gallstones.

It may also be possible to dissolve gallstones by taking ursodeoxycholic acid tablets, especially if the stones are small and do not contain any calcium. However, such treatment is rarely effective, needs to be taken for a prolonged period of time of up to two years, and the stones can come back once the patient ends treatment.

When you choose to go private with Circle Health Group, you can expect:   

  • Flexible appointment times and locations to fit your routine  
  • The freedom to choose which hospital and Consultant suit your needs  
  • Personalised, consultant-led treatment plans tailored to your individual needs  
  • Comfortable and safe private facilities maintained by expert multidisciplinary teams  
  • Support by the same compassionate clinical team from beginning to end  
  • Affordable, fixed-price packages with aftercare included  
  • Flexible payment options to spread the cost of your care

If you would like to learn more about this procedure, book your appointment online today or call a member of our team directly on 0141 300 5009.

Content reviewed by Circle in-house team in April 2022. Next review due April 2025.

  1. Gallbladder removal, NHS
  2. Cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal), Mayo Clinic
  3. Gallbladder removal, Bupa
  4. Gallbladder removal surgery (cholecystectomy), Guy's and St Tomas' NHS Foundation Trust
  5. Gallbladder removal surgery patient information from Sages, Sages

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