A gallbladder is a small bag that sits just under the liver and holds a liquid called bile. When we consume food, our gallbladder releases bile through the bile duct that goes into the intestines. When bile mixes with the foods that we have eaten it helps with digestion. Gallstones can develop in bile and can be the source of complications.
Gallstones are small ‘stones’ that form in the gallbladder. They are quite common. Some people have gallstones and are without symptoms but for others they result in frequent flare-ups of abdominal pain.
It’s very common to develop gallstones – reports show that one-third of women and 16% of men will suffer from gallstones at a time throughout their life. The condition is more common in women who are overweight or have had children. It is believed that as a result of changes in our diets in recent decades, as we consume more fatty foods, gallstones have become more common today.
The first thing to understand is what bile actually is. It’s a mixture of different chemicals and when the bile can’t hold all of the chemicals in a liquid solution, solid gallstones begin to form. Gallstones start out as small crystals but can grow in size until they resemble something the size of a pebble. In some cases, there can be just a single stone, although often there are several.
Bile contains a high level of cholesterol, a fatty substance that can lead to diseases in the arteries. The human body produces bile as one way to clear the body of excess cholesterol, although there is sometimes too much cholesterol in the bile that is produced. When this happens, the cholesterol separates and forms small crystals that over time merge together to form a gallstone.
It’s very common for people who have gallstones not to realise that they are there. However, the most common risk factors are as follows:
Studies show that around 66% of people have gallstones but don’t show any symptoms. It’s usually the case that gallstones are revealed when investigating another condition or having an operation close to the gallbladder location such as bariatric (weight loss) surgery. Symptoms usually only arise if the gallstones move from the gall bladder to the bile ducts that lead into the intestine.
Complications that can arise when this happens include:
Your doctor might begin to suspect the presence of gallstones if you report pain around the top of the abdomen that has been coming in waves, lasting for hours at a time. Furthermore, a visual examination for jaundice will be carried out, where the doctor will look for yellow pigment in the eyes or skin. As well as this, a physical examination will be carried out to determine if there is any pain/soreness present at the top of the abdomen.
If these examinations lead to a diagnosis of gallstones, you will need to go through some further testing. Most commonly, these tests include blood tests, an ultrasound scan or an MRI/CT scan (if the ultrasound scan is inconclusive).
If gallstones are present but not causing any complications or symptoms, you may not need to have them removed as it’s possible that the gallstones can travel through the body and passed naturally. However, if there are symptoms present, the gallstones will need to be removed. The easiest way to do this is to have gallbladder removal surgery. It’s important to note that the gallbladder is not an essential organ, and you can go on to live a happy, healthy and pain-free life after it’s been removed.
Gallbladder removal surgery
Gallbladder removal (known as cholecystectomy) is usually undertaken laparoscopically (keyhole) but there are a minority of cases that need to be done as open procedures. An open procedure would only usually be necessary when the gallbladder is found to be very inflamed. With our surgeons, over 99% of cases are successfully completed laparoscopically. The benefit of this is that you can usually go home the same day and expect a swift recovery. Most people are able to go back to work in 4 or 5 days assuming their work is not too strenuous.
The procedure is performed under general anaesthetic and usually takes no more than 30-60 minutes in theatre. Due to this, we have an age restriction of 70 for our procedures.
There are several health benefits that come with gallbladder removal surgery, perhaps the most significant being that you will be free of pain!
Most people who have keyhole gallbladder removal surgery are able to leave hospital on the same day as the operation. It’ll usually take around 2 weeks to return to your normal activities but you’ll be able to drive and go back to work within 4 or 5 days.
You’ll be able to live a perfectly normally without a gallbladder, so usually, there aren’t any long-term side effects.
Temporary side effects can include:
All of these side effects are completely normal and will rapidly improve as you recover. They are not usually a cause for concern.
It’s no secret that the NHS is under more pressure than ever before. The likelihood is that if you are offered gallbladder removal on the NHS it could take up to 18 months to happen due to growing waiting lists.
Below is a graph showing the growing NHS waiting list for hospital treatment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.