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Cholecystecomy for painful gallstones

BMJ Group Medical Reference


This information is for people who have painful gallstones but who don't have an inflamed gallbladder. It tells you about surgery to take out your gallbladder, a treatment used for painful gallstones.

Does it work?

There hasn't been much research on having your gallbladder taken out if your only problem is painful gallstones. But here is what we know.

  • An operation to take out your gallbladder is recommended as the best treatment if you have painful gallstones. [44]

  • There are three different ways to do the operation. The one that works best is called keyhole surgery. [45] [46]

  • About 8 in 10 operations to take out gallbladders are done the keyhole way. [45] [46]

What is it?

Sometimes, gallstones block the tubes that carry bile and other digestive juices. When this happens, you get pain in your abdomen. Doctors call this biliary pain.

The usual treatment for this pain is an operation to take out your gallbladder. You can lead a healthy life without your gallbladder. In the UK each year, surgeons do about 50,000 operations to take out gallbladders. [45] [47]

Most people who have surgery to take out their gallbladder only get attacks of pain from their gallstones. They don't have serious problems from the stones, such as inflammation of their gallbladder.

What types of surgery are there?

The usual treatment for painful gallstones is an operation to take out your gallbladder. There are three types of surgery:

  • Keyhole surgery (called laparoscopic cholecystectomy)

  • Open surgery (called open cholecystectomy)

  • Mini-keyhole surgery (called minilaparoscopic cholecystectomy).

For all of these operations, you have a general anaesthetic. That means you are asleep and you won't feel anything.

You can learn more about each type of surgery below.

Keyhole surgery

Here is what we know about keyhole surgery to take out your gallbladder.

The operation usually takes an hour and a half. [48] But it can last more than two hours. [49]

In studies, people died in less than 1 in 1,000 keyhole operations. [50] A study of people who had keyhole operations found that five years after the operation one person in every five said they still felt some pain from their gallstones. But four in every five people said they were happy with the results of the operation. [51]

Usually, for keyhole surgery, your surgeon makes four small cuts in your abdomen. [52] But some surgeons use just three cuts, and others use five.

One cut is made close to your belly button. This one is about 2 centimetres to 3 centimetres (about 1 inch) long. The other cuts are smaller. They are usually 0.5 centimetre to 1 centimetre (about one-quarter inch to one-half inch) long.

Your surgeon puts a tube inside each cut to hold it open, so he or she can pass tiny tools into your abdomen. Gas is pumped in to make your abdomen blow up like a balloon. This makes more space around your organs inside, so your surgeon has more room to work.

Last Updated: November 23, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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