What you need to know about recovering from gallbladder removal surgery

Gallbladder removal surgery is one of the most common surgeries performed worldwide and is the only proven treatment for gallstones. Also known as a cholecystectomy, over 60,000 gallbladder removal surgeries are performed in the UK. 

What does gallbladder removal involve?

In the vast majority of cases, gallbladder removal surgery is performed as a day case keyhole procedure, which uses smaller cuts than traditional open surgery and consequently, has a faster recovery time. The procedure takes 40–60 minutes and is performed under a general anaesthetic. Most patients return home on the same day as their surgery, or in some cases, the next morning. 

During your operation, a small cut will be made under your belly button and three even smaller cuts under your right rib cage. Gas will be introduced into your abdomen to make it easier for your surgeon to access your gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ attached to your liver under the right ribcage. 

Next, a thin, telescope-like tube with a light and a camera on the end (laparoscope) will be inserted into your abdomen, so your surgeon can see inside your abdomen by looking at the images transmitted to a monitor. 

Then, special surgical instruments will be passed through the cuts in your abdomen to remove your gallbladder. Finally, the gas will be released from your abdomen, the cuts closed with stitches, and dressings placed over your wound sites. 

Risks of gallbladder removal surgery

In the majority of cases, there are no long-term complications or side effects associated with gallbladder removal surgery. However, as with any surgery, there is always the risk of infection, bleeding, tissue damage or bile duct damage, and/or an allergic reaction to the anaesthetic. 

In rare cases, after gallbladder removal surgery, you may experience diarrhoea for a short time afterwards as removal of your gallbladder means that bile is not stored and then released from your gallbladder into your small intestine whenever needed. Instead, bile produced by your liver continuously drips directly into your small intestine. This bile can irritate your bowel, leading to diarrhoea. This usually resolves on its own, however, in some cases, your doctor may prescribe bile salts to bind to any excess bile. 

Recovering from gallbladder removal surgery

After waking up from your surgery, you will be given something to eat and drink. In most cases, you will be discharged to go home on the same day and can walk out of hospital unaided. 

You will be given a prescription for pain relief medication; as certain painkillers can cause constipation, you may also be prescribed a laxative to prevent this from happening. 

You should have an adult stay with you for the next 24–48 hours in case any complications develop; most complications become evident in this timeframe and can include fever, feeling unwell or your abdomen becoming distended (swollen). If you notice any of these complications, you should contact your care team immediately. 

Looking after your wound site

Before you leave the hospital, your wound site will have a fresh dressing applied and your care team will provide you with extra dressings so you can change them yourself during your recovery. They will advise you on how and how often to change your dressings, as well as when you can stop using dressings. 

During your initial recovery, you will need to keep your wound site dry when having a shower. Usually after around 10 days, you can shower or bathe without wearing a dressing over your wound site. 

In most cases, dissolvable stitches will be used to close your wound site in such a way that no stitches will be visible from the outside. These stitches will disappear on their own. 

If non-dissolvable stitches are used to close your wound site, they will be removed seven to 10 days after your surgery, either at your GP practice or during an outpatient appointment at the hospital.  

Your diet

During the first few days after your surgery, you may find it easier to eat small, frequent meals, rather than three larger meals each day. 

After a few days, you should be able to return to eating your usual portion sizes. However, you may need to avoid or minimise the amount of fatty and fried foods you eat during your recovery, especially if your gallbladder was removed due to gallstone pain triggered by these types of food. 

Your activity levels

You will likely need to take one to two weeks off work, depending on how physically demanding your job is. You can return to more physical activities, such as sports, after two to three weeks. 

You will need to wait around three to four weeks before you can return to driving, as the seat belt will pass over your wound site and you need to be able to make an emergency stop comfortably. You can discuss this in more detail with your surgeon.

Around five to six weeks after your surgery, you will be seen at an outpatient clinic to check on your recovery.

Author biography

Mr Neil Bhardwaj is a Consultant General, Hepatobiliary and Pancreatic Surgeon at Spire Leicester Hospital and Leicester NHS General Hospital. He has a specialist interest in hernia, adrenal and spleen surgery and, in particular, keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery. He routinely performs keyhole surgery for gallbladder removal, keyhole and open hernia surgery, and keyhole and open liver and pancreas surgery, as well as investigations into the causes of abdominal pain. Mr Bhardwaj also runs a chronic pancreatitis clinic. 

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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