What Is Surgery for Removing Gallstones Like?

Surgery for removing gallstones is usually a laparoscopic procedure in which surgeons insert small, thin instruments through small incisions, and use a camera and surgical tools to remove the entire gallbladder, explains the University of California San Francisco. Surgeons carefully separate the gallbladder from surrounding structures, including the liver and bile ducts. They then remove the gallbladder through one of the small incisions after severing the cystic duct. Most of the time, all the gallstones are removed with the gallbladder.

In some cases, doctors discover that the gallbladder is especially inflamed, scarred or infected, which makes laparoscopic surgery problematic, states UCSF. In these cases, surgeons use open surgery to remove the gallbladder. This involves a single, much larger incision and, in part because abdominal muscles are severed, has a much longer recovery time. Surgeons must use the open method in about 5 percent of gallbladder surgeries. Occasionally, gallstones are present in the bile ducts as well as the gallbladder, and surgeons use the ERCP procedure to remove these individually.

Gallstones can be present in the gallbladder without causing symptoms, and these do not require treatment, explains UCSF. Gallstones become a problem when they block ducts leading from the gallbladder and cause pressure to build up, a situation often known as a gallbladder attack. Left untreated, a blocked-up gallbladder can become infected and create a life-threatening condition.