Gallbladder surgery (cholecystectomy) entails the removal of the gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ located in the upper right side of the abdomen that stores bile. Gallbladder surgery is used to treat several gallbladder-related conditions, most commonly gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis) from gallstones.
What Is Gallbladder Surgery?
Gallbladder surgery is performed by a general surgeon in a hospital under general anesthesia. In select cases (e.g., an intolerance to general anesthesia), the operation may be performed under spinal anesthesia.
While the surgery can be scheduled in advance, in cases of severe inflammation, gallbladder surgery is performed emergently.
Various Surgical Approaches
There are a few surgical approaches that may be used to remove a patient's gallbladder.
- Open: With this approach, the gallbladder is removed through a single large incision (about four to six inches in length) made in the upper right side of the abdomen.
- Laparoscopic: With this minimally invasive approach, the surgeon makes four tiny incisions in the abdomen. A long, thin instrument that has a camera attached to it, called a laparoscope, is inserted into one of the incisions. This instrument allows the surgeon to visualize the abdominal organs through images projected onto a TV screen. Various surgical instruments are inserted through the other incisions to remove the gallbladder.
- Robot-assisted: With this emerging and developing minimally invasive approach the surgeon views high-definition images of the abdomen while sitting at a computer console. The surgeon then uses controls to move robotic arms with attached surgical instruments to perform the surgery.
In terms of hospitalization after surgery, the open approach always requires a hospital stay. With the laparoscopic or robotic-assisted approach, select patients may be able to go home on the same day of surgery.
Overall, laparoscopic gallbladder surgery is the preferred approach for gallbladder surgery. When compared to open surgery, it is associated with less bleeding and a shorter recovery time.
There are patient scenarios, however, in which open surgery is the necessary approach. For example:
- Patients who have or are strongly suspected of having gallbladder cancer
- Patients who need gallbladder surgery as part of another operation (e.g., the Whipple procedure for pancreatic cancer)
- Patients with a history of multiple upper abdominal surgeries with scar tissue
When comparing laparoscopic gallbladder surgery to robotic-assisted gallbladder surgery, the robotic-assisted approach is more costly and requires a slighter longer operation time. The robotic-assisted approach has also not been found to be more effective or safer than the laparoscopic gallbladder surgery for noncancerous gallbladder disease.
Absolute contraindications to undergoing gallbladder surgery include:
- An uncontrolled bleeding disorder
- Peritonitis with hemodynamic instability
Relative contraindications include:
- A prior extensive abdominal surgery
- Severe heart or lung disease
- Acute cholangitis
- Morbid obesity
- An inability to tolerate general anesthesia
While gallbladder surgery is generally low-risk, some potential surgical risks include:
- Bleeding within the abdomen
- Bile leakage from an injury to a bile duct
- Wound infection or infection of the abdominal cavity (peritonitis)
- Incisional hernia
- Hematoma (blood collection) of the abdominal wall
- Retained gallstones in the bile duct
- Injury to the intestines or liver
- Spilled gallstones in the abdominal cavity, potentially resulting in abscess formation
Purpose of Gallbladder Surgery
The purpose of gallbladder surgery is to treat medical conditions that affect your gallbladder, such as:
- Gallstones in the gallbladder that cause abdominal pain
- Inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis)
- Acalculous gallbladder disease
- Gallbladder polyps bigger than 10 millimeter
- Gallbladder cancer
- Gallbladder calcification (porcelain gallbladder)
The gallbladder is what stores fluid produced by the liver and feeds it to your small intestine, helping your body break down the food you eat—in particular, fats. While the removal of any organ is considered with great care, the pros of removing the gallbladder when indicated invariably outweigh the cons.
You can live a healthy life without a gallbladder; bile that would normally be stored there will simply travel straight to the small intestine.
How to Prepare
If your surgery is scheduled, your surgeon will give you various preparatory instructions, such as:
- Wearing loose-fitting, comfortable clothes on the day of your surgery.
- Not eating prior to surgery (typically four to twelve hours)
- Stopping certain medications for a period of time before your surgery—for example, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Bringing personal items, like a toothbrush and hairbrush, for your hospital stay (if undergoing open surgery)
- Arranging to have someone drive you home (if undergoing laparoscopic gallbladder surgery)
What to Expect on the Day of Surgery
What happens during your surgery depends on the approach the surgeon uses. Regardless of the approach used, the procedure should take about one to two hours.
To give you a sense of what's involved, here is a brief walk-through of how laparoscopic gallbladder surgery (the most common procedure) is done:
- Vital signs are taken, an IV catheter and a urinary catheter are placed, and anesthesia medication is delivered to put you to sleep. The skin of your abdomen is prepared with an antibacterial solution.
- The surgeon will begin by making four small incisions, approximately half an inch long, in the upper-right side of the abdomen—two for access for surgical instruments, one to allow the laparoscope to be inserted, and one for a port that releases carbon dioxide gas to inflating the abdomen.
- The surgeon will then separate the gallbladder from the healthy tissue and place it in a sterile bag to allow it to pass through one of the small incisions. A drain may be placed in the abdomen to prevent fluid (bile and blood) from collecting.
- The surgeon will then inspect the area where the gallbladder was removed and close the ducts that were connected to it.
- If there are no signs of leaking, the port will be removed. The remaining gas will leak out of the incisions as the instruments are taken out.
- The incisions will then be closed with stitches or surgical staples. A sterile bandage or adhesive strips will be placed over them.
- Anesthesia will be stopped and you will be taken to a recovery area.
Gallbladder Surgery: What to Expect on the Day of Surgery
In the recovery area, a nurse will monitor your vital signs (e.g., blood pressure and heart rate) and help control common post-surgical symptoms, like pain and nausea.
If you underwent a laparoscopic or robotic-assisted cholecystectomy, you may stay in the hospital for one or two nights or be discharged from the recovery room after around six hours. In this case, you will need to have a family member or friend drive you home where you will finish recovering.
If you underwent open surgery, you will be taken to a hospital room where you will stay for approximately two to four days.
As you recover in the hospital, you can expect the following:
- You will be given pain medication (an opioid) through your IV. When ready, you will be transitioned to an oral pain medication.
- If you had a nasogastric tube placed in the operating room and it was not removed in the recovery room, it may be taken out. At that time, you will be able to drink liquids and slowly advance to solid foods, as tolerated.
- You may be given a blood thinner or compression boots to prevent blood clots.
- You will be asked to use an incentive spirometer to strengthen your lungs after surgery.
- Your urinary catheter and any abdominal drain(s) placed will typically be removed within a few days of being in the hospital.
Once discharged from the recovery room or hospital, you will have various post-operative instructions to follow at home.
These may include:
- Keeping your incision site(s) clean and dry.
- Taking your pain medication as directed.
- Restricting certain activities, like heavy lifting, swimming, or sports for one to four weeks.
Full recovery from open gallbladder surgery takes about six weeks; recovery from a laparoscopic surgery takes about four weeks.
When to Seek Medical Attention:
When recovering from gallbladder surgery, be sure to contact your healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Persistent or severe abdominal pain, cramping, or swelling
- Fever or chills
- Redness, swelling, bleeding, or abnormal drainage at the incision site(s)
- Signs of jaundice (yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes)
- No bowel movement or gas for three days
- Nausea or vomiting
To ensure that you are healing and recovering well after surgery and to monitor for complications, it's important to attend all follow-up appointments with your surgeon. These appointments are usually scheduled at two weeks and then four or six weeks after surgery.
While the goal of gallbladder surgery is to alleviate symptoms of gallstones (in most cases), a small subset of patients continues to have symptoms after surgery, including nausea, vomiting, bloating, jaundice, diarrhea, or abdominal pain.
This phenomenon is termed post-cholecystectomy syndrome (PCS), and it may occur early (hours to days) or later (weeks to months) after the gallbladder is removed. Since there are multiple potential etiologies that may cause this syndrome, your surgeon may need to perform imaging of your abdomen as well as blood tests at your follow-up appointments.
A Word From Verywell
While gallbladder surgery is a common operation, it nevertheless poses risks. If you (or a loved one) are undergoing this surgery, be sure to adhere to your post-operative instructions, and reach out to your surgical team with any questions or concerns.
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.
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You should be able to go back to normal activity a couple of weeks after laparoscopic surgery. It could take a month or more for open surgery. Usually, people can resume sexual activity about 2 weeks after the operation. Talk to your doctor about when they'd like you to ease back into your normal day-to-day.How long does it take for your body to fully recover from gallbladder surgery? ›
Recovering from laparoscopic cholecystectomy will take up to 6 weeks for most people. You may be back to most normal activities in a week or two, but it can take several weeks to return to your normal energy level.What to expect immediately after gallbladder surgery? ›
After Gallbladder Surgery
The anesthetic may not wear off until a day later. Immediately following the surgery, you will likely have swollen and bruised wounds. The pain should improve in a few days, and you may take prescribed medications to reduce it. You will need to properly care for your surgical wounds.
How much Weight Do you typically Lose after Gallbladder Removal Surgery? After the surgery, you'll likely experience an average weight loss of 130 lbs. due to: Eliminating fatty foods.How long is bed rest after gallbladder surgery? ›
Generally, you should only need complete rest for the first 24 hours. After that, you should attempt to get up and walk as often as possible. Being active may even help you recover faster. Your body is good at telling you when you've reached your limit, so listen and rest when it tells you.What are the challenges after gallbladder removal? ›
Complications after undergoing cholecystectomy include the development of diarrhea or bloating due to alteration of biliary flow. There is also the possibility of having a cystic duct remnant that could potentially lead to stone formation and cause Mirizzi syndrome.What are the long term side effects of gallbladder removal? ›
Long-term effects of gallbladder removal include diarrhea, fatty food intolerance, gas, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, and intermittent episodes of abdominal pain. Symptoms of post-cholecystectomy syndrome typically begin in the postoperative period, but can also begin months or years after surgery.What hurts the most after gallbladder surgery? ›
The incision and your abdominal muscles may ache, especially after long periods of standing. If you had a laparoscopic surgery, you may feel pain from any carbon dioxide gas still in your belly. This pain may last for a few days. It should feel a bit better each day.What are the do's or don ts after gallbladder surgery? ›
Although there isn't a set gallbladder removal diet, the following tips may help reduce problems with diarrhea after you've had your gallbladder out: Go easy on the fat. Don't eat high-fat foods, fried and greasy foods, and fatty sauces and gravies for at least a week after surgery.Can you drink alcohol with no gallbladder? ›
Avoiding alcohol immediately after having the gallbladder removed is best, although a person can drink moderately after recovery. While the gallbladder is an organ of the digestive tract, it does not play a role in metabolizing alcohol. Most of the alcohol people consume digests in the liver.
People who undergo gallbladder removal surgery will often experience changes in their body weight ahead of and following this procedure. Many people will lose weight initially but may see an increase in their BMI in the long term. It is usually possible to manage these weight changes with diet and exercise.Do you get skinnier after gallbladder removal? ›
After having your gallbladder removed, it's quite possible that you'll experience some weight loss. This may be due to the following: Eliminating fatty foods.Is weight loss harder without a gallbladder? ›
Gallbladder removal typically results in fluctuations in your body weight. However, with a few simple diet and lifestyle changes,, the body adjusts to the loss of the gallbladder and you will be able to maintain healthy body weight for the long term.Do you sleep a lot after gallbladder surgery? ›
This same study concluded that in the first 2 to 4 nights after either type of surgery, your body will lose a significant amount of REM sleep, but that in the days afterward, your body will try to provide you with extra REM sleep to make up for it. Causes may include: abdominal pressure or bloating.How do you go to the bathroom after gallbladder surgery? ›
Stool Softeners (colace & docusate calcium) soften the stool, making it easier to pass. Stool softeners can be most effective if you drink plenty of water throughout the day. Laxatives: Such as Correctol, Ex-Lax, and Senokot make stool move faster through the intestines by irritating the lining of the intestines.Should I rest or walk after gallbladder surgery? ›
Doing appropriate activities: In the first 2 weeks after surgery, the patients is not suggested to do strenuous activities or physical exertion. Short-distance walking might be advised. Driving is not recommended for at least 5-7 days after surgery.Why do I still have pain years after gallbladder removal? ›
Most commonly, persisting symptoms after cholecystectomy are caused by a condition that the patient had preoperatively and that is not related to gallstones, such as gastroesophageal reflux, peptic ulcer, or irritable bowel syndrome.Will I ever feel better after gallbladder removal? ›
Gallbladder problems usually linger, and the inflammation takes its toll on your body and energy reserves. The vast majority of gallbladder removal patients feel much better after a week or two than they did before the operation.Why is my stomach bigger after gallbladder surgery? ›
Gallbladder surgery can also cause changes in the diet of patients. Post-surgery, you are advised to avoid high-fat foods as they are difficult to digest. This may lead to an increase in your stomach size as your body adjusts to the new diet.