What Does the Gallbladder Do?

Learn when gallbladder removal may be needed

A doctor shows his patient a diagram of a gallbladder.

Learn when gallbladder removal may be needed

Gallbladder surgery is one of the most common surgeries in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people have their gallbladder removed every year due to problems.

Yet few people really understand what the gallbladder does. Or why it would need to be removed? That is until injury or gallbladder disease occurs.

Surgery to remove the gallbladder is also known as cholecystectomy. It is sometimes done as open surgery, using a large incision. The most common type is laparoscopic surgery. This minimally invasive approach uses several small incisions.

“Gallbladder surgery is usually not necessary unless you have severe symptoms,” says Richard Petyn, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Jefferson in Oceanside.

What is a gallbladder?

The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ below the liver. It stores bile, a fluid produced in the liver that helps the body digest fat. Bile is released through the common bile duct, a tube-like structure that connects the gallbladder and liver to the small intestine.

“Most of the time, the gallbladder does its job with no problems. But when it blocks the flow of bile through the ducts, it can cause problems. It can lead to inflammation and infection of the gallbladder,” says Dr. Petyn.

Most often, ducts are blocked by gallstones. “If you have gallstone attacks, often the best solution is simply to have your gallbladder removed,” Dr. Petyn says.

What are gallstones?

Gallstones are the most common reason for gallbladder removal surgery.

Gallstones are small, pebble-like substances that form in the gallbladder. They develop when bile contains too much cholesterol or salt and becomes solid. Gallstones become a problem when they migrate outside the gallbladder and block the flow of bile.

“When gallstones block the bile ducts, this can cause sudden, abdominal pain. This is known as a gallbladder attack,” Dr. Petyn says.

If you have gallstones but no symptoms, it’s likely you will not need treatment. But if you experience a gallbladder attack, contact your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist or surgeon for treatment.

Non-surgical vs. surgical treatment

Nonsurgical treatment may include what is known as watchful waiting if you have no symptoms. It may include nonsurgical therapies to destroy gallstones causing pain, though others could form in the future. Your doctor may also recommend exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer foods high in sugars and carbohydrates.

If surgery is recommended, make sure to discuss all the potential benefits and risks. Also, make sure to ask your surgeon about his or her training, experience, and patient outcomes.

Gallbladder symptoms

See your doctor right away if you have these symptoms. They may be signs of a serious infection or inflammation of the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas.

  • Abdominal pain lasting several hours
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever or chills
  • Jaundice
  • Tea-colored urine, light-colored stools

Risk factors for gallstones include obesity and certain kinds of dieting. American Indians and Mexican-Americans have a higher risk of gallstones.

Do I need my gallbladder?

The gallbladder is not considered an essential organ. You can live without one. Bile can be passed to the small intestine through other paths.

Open surgery vs. minimally invasive surgeries

Open gallbladder surgery is usually done when the gallbladder is severely inflamed, infected, or scarred from other operations. A surgeon may perform open surgery if problems occur during a laparoscopic surgery.

Laparoscopic gallbladder surgery (laparoscopic cholecystectomy) is a minimally invasive procedure that uses several tiny incisions. Smaller incisions reduce the risk of infection, blood loss and recovery time.

In this procedure, the surgeon makes four small incisions around the abdomen. The incisions are used to guide a tube with a small camera into the abdomen. The surgeon then guides other long, narrow surgical tools through the incisions while looking at a monitor.

Robotic surgery

Robotic gallbladder removal is much like laparoscopic surgery. The difference is the surgeon doesn’t hold surgical instruments in his or her hands. Instead, the instruments are attached to robotic arms. The surgeon sits at a computer console and guides the robot.

“Robotic technology uses three-dimensional, high definition vision, which greatly magnifies the gallbladder and surrounding tissue,” says Dr. Petyn.

What is recovery time for robotic surgery?

Robotic gallbladder surgery is an outpatient procedure. It usually requires less than 24 hours in the hospital. Not everyone is a candidate for this procedure.

“It is most appropriate for patients who elect to have their gallbladders removed and have no complicating factors,” Dr. Petyn says. “If a patient is obese or has complications, this may not be a suitable procedure.”

In most cases, you may be able to resume normal activity within one week. People who have open gallbladder surgery may need to stay in the hospital for two to three days. Recovery can take four to six weeks.

“Everyone recovers differently. Your recovery time will depend on several factors. This includes your age, overall health and the type of surgery you had,” Dr. Petyn says.

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