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Can gallstones be treated with surgery?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

If you have gallstones without symptoms, you do not require treatment. If you have frequent gallbladder attacks, your doctor will recommend that you have your gallbladder removed-an operation called cholecystectomy. Surgery to remove the gallbladder-a nonessential organ-is one of the most common surgeries performed in United States of America.

Nearly all cholecystectomies are performed with laparoscopy. After sedating you, the surgeon makes several tiny incisions in the abdomen and inserts a laparoscope and a miniature video camera. The camera sends a magnified image from inside the body to a video monitor, giving the surgeon a close-up view of the organs and tissues. While watching the monitor, the surgeon uses the instruments to carefully separate the gallbladder from the liver, bile ducts, and other structures. Then, the surgeon cuts the cystic duct and removes the gallbladder through one of the small incisions.

If tests show that the gallbladder has inflammation, infection, or scarring from other operations, the surgeon may perform open surgery to remove the gallbladder. In some cases, open surgery is planned; however, sometimes these problems are discovered during the laparoscopy and the surgeon must make a larger incision. Recovery from open surgery usually requires three to five days in the hospital and several weeks at home. Open surgery is necessary in about five percent of gallbladder operations.

The most common complication in gallbladder surgery is injury to the bile ducts. An injured common bile duct can leak bile and cause a painful and potentially dangerous infection. Mild injuries can sometimes be treated nonsurgically.

If gallstones are present in the bile ducts, the physician-usually a gastroenterologist-may use endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) to locate and remove them before or during gallbladder surgery. Occasionally, a person who has had a cholecystectomy is diagnosed with a gallstone in the bile ducts weeks, months, or even years after the surgery. The ERCP procedure is usually successful in removing the stone in these cases.

This answer is based on the source infromation from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.