Your gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ located under your liver, in the upper-right area of your abdomen. Its purpose is to store and deliver bile — the fluid that helps digest food. If your gallbladder is not working properly, or your bile becomes out of balance, hard fragments called gallstones start to form. These fragments can be as small as a grain of rice or as big as a golf ball, and unfortunately, they don’t go away on their own. If you experience pain or other symptoms including fever, diarrhea or unusual bowel movements, nausea and jaundice, a surgical removal of your gallbladder may be necessary. This type of surgery is common and referred to as a cholecystectomy.
The procedure can be performed because you are able to live and function without your gallbladder. Your liver can make enough bile on its own, and bile can naturally find its way into your small intestine even if your gallbladder is removed and no longer available to help.
Some patients with gallstones experience no symptoms and therefore do not need surgery. However, others can experience heightened symptoms, including intense, stabbing pain in the stomach that can last several hours. If this is the case, medical attention should be sought immediately.
Although gallbladder surgery is safe and commonly performed, there are some risks and problems that may arise, including:
- Reaction to anesthesia
- Bile leakage
- Damage to bile ducts, intestine, bowel, or blood vessels
- Deep vein thrombosis (blood clots)
- Heart problems
There is also the risk of a condition called post-cholecystectomy syndrome, or PCS. This occurs if any traces of gallstones remain in your bile ducts, or if bile leaks into your stomach. Symptoms are similar to those of gallstones, including stomach pain, heartburn, and diarrhea.
However, if left untreated, gallstones can lead to more serious problems, such as:
- Cholecystitis – inflamed gallbladder
- Pancreatitis – inflamed pancreas
- Cholangitis – inflamed bile ducts
Several tests will need to be run to see how your gallstones are affecting your health. Such tests could include:
- Blood work
- Endoscopic ultrasonography – a device positioned to see inside your mouth and throughout your digestive tract, using sound waves to create a detailed image of your small intestine
- MRI HIDA (hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid) scan – a chemical injected into your body to aid in creating images that identify blocked ducts
You will be given general anesthesia prior to your procedure, which means you will not be awake or feel any pain.
What Happens in Surgery?
Your gallbladder can be removed in three different ways:
Open surgery: a 5- to 7-inch incision is made in your abdomen to take out your gallbladder. This type of procedure is typically used for those who have a bleeding disorder, severe gallbladder disease, are in their last trimester of pregnancy, or are extremely overweight.
Laparoscopic cholecystectomy: Also known as “keyhole surgery,” instead of a large cut, four small incisions are made. A flexible, thin tube containing a light and a tiny video camera is inserted into your belly. This allows the surgeon to see your gallbladder better. Special miniature surgical tools are then used to remove the gallbladder.
Robotic: The da Vinci System is a robotic-assisted surgical device controlled by your surgeon to remove the gallbladder through a single, small incision. This state-of-the-art technology provides a 3D HD view inside your body and utilizes special instruments that bend and rotate far greater than the human hand, allowing for 100% in control and enhanced precision. Benefits of this procedure include:
- minimal scarring
- less pain
- less bleeding
- faster recovery
- shorter hospital stay
The length of time it takes you to heal depends on the type of procedure you have.
Open surgery will require you to stay in the hospital for a few days. It may take 6 to 8 weeks to fully recover.
Laparoscopy is less involved, so you’ll have less pain and heal faster than if you would with open surgery. Most patients are able to go home the same day as the procedure and typically return to normal routines within 2 weeks.
Robotic surgery has an even faster, less painful recovery time and shorter hospital stay.