Your treatment plan for gallstones depends on how the symptoms are affecting your daily life.
If you don't have any symptoms, a policy of 'active monitoring' is often recommended. This means you won't receive immediate treatment, but you should let your GP know if you notice any symptoms.
As a general rule, the longer you go without symptoms, the less likely it is that your condition will get worse.
You may need treatment if you have a condition that increases your risk of developing complications, such as:
Treatment may also be recommended if a scan shows high levels of calcium inside your gallbladder, as this can lead to gallbladder cancer in later life.
If you have episodes of abdominal pain (biliary colic), treatment depends on how the pain affects your daily activities. If the episodes are mild and infrequent, you may be prescribed painkillers to control further episodes and given advice about eating a healthy diet to help control the pain.
If your symptoms are more severe and occur frequently, surgery to remove the gallbladder is usually recommended.
The gallbladder isn't an essential organ and you can lead a perfectly normal life without one. Some people may experience symptoms of bloating and diarrhoea after eating fatty or spicy food. If certain foods do trigger symptoms, you may wish to avoid them in the future.
Keyhole surgery to remove the gallbladder
If surgery is recommended, you'll usually have keyhole surgery to remove your gallbladder. This is known as a laparoscopic cholecystectomy.
During a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, 3 or 4 small cuts are made in your abdomen. One larger cut (about 2-3cm) will be by the belly button and the others (each 1cm or less) will be on the right side of your abdomen.
Your abdomen is temporarily inflated using carbon dioxide gas. This is harmless and makes it easier for the surgeon to see your organs.
A laparoscope (long thin telescope with a tiny light and video camera at the end) is inserted through one of the cuts in your abdomen. This allows your surgeon to view the operation on a video monitor. Your surgeon will then remove your gallbladder using special surgical instruments.
If it's thought there may be gallstones in the bile duct, an X-ray or ultrasound scan of the bile duct is also taken during the operation. If gallstones are found, they may be removed during keyhole surgery. If the operation can't be done this way or an unexpected complication occurs, it may have to be converted to open surgery (see below).
After the gallbladder has been removed, the gas in your abdomen escapes through the laparoscope and the cuts are closed with dissolvable stitches and covered with dressings.
Laparoscopic cholecystectomies are usually performed under a general anaesthetic, which means you'll be asleep during the procedure and won't feel any pain while it's carried out. The operation takes 60-90 minutes and you can usually go home the same day. Full recovery typically takes around 10 days.
Single-incision keyhole surgery
Single-incision laparoscopic cholecystectomy is a newer type of keyhole surgery used to remove the gallbladder. During this type of surgery, only one small cut is made, which means you'll only have one barely visible scar.
However, single-incision laparoscopic cholecystectomies haven’t been carried out as often as conventional laparoscopic cholecystectomies, so there are still some uncertainties about it. Access to this type of surgery is also limited because it needs an experienced surgeon with specialist training.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has more information on single-incision laparoscopic cholecystectomy.
A laparoscopic cholecystectomy may not always be recommended, for example if you:
- are in the third trimester (the last three months) of pregnancy
- are extremely overweight
- have an unusual gallbladder or bile duct structure that makes a keyhole procedure difficult and potentially dangerous
In these circumstances, an open cholecystectomy may be recommended. During this procedure, a 10-15cm (4-6in) incision is made in your abdomen underneath the ribs so the gallbladder can be removed. This is done under general anaesthetic, so you'll be asleep and won't feel any pain.
Open surgery is just as effective as laparoscopic surgery, but it does have a longer recovery time and causes more visible scarring. Most people have to stay in hospital for up to 5 days and it typically takes 6 weeks to fully recover.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP)
An endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP) is a procedure that can be used to remove gallstones from the bile duct. The gallbladder isn't removed during this procedure, so any stones in the gallbladder will remain unless removed using the surgical techniques mentioned above.
ERCP is similar to a diagnostic cholangiography (see diagnosing gallstones for more information), where an endoscope (long, thin flexible tube with a camera at the end) is passed through your mouth down to where the bile duct opens into the small intestine.
However, during ERCP the opening of the bile duct is widened with a small incision or an electrically heated wire. The bile duct stones are then removed or left to pass into your intestine and out of your body.
Sometimes a small tube called a stent is permanently placed in the bile duct to help the bile and stones pass.
An ERCP is usually carried out under sedation, which means you'll be awake throughout the procedure but won't experience any pain.
The ERCP procedure lasts about 30 minutes on average, but can take from 15 minutes to over an hour. You may need to stay overnight in hospital after the procedure so you can be monitored.
Medication to dissolve gallstones
If your gallstones are small and don't contain calcium, it may be possible to take ursodeoxycholic acid tablets to dissolve them.
However, these aren't prescribed very often because:
- they're rarely very effective
- they need to be taken for a long time (up to 2 years)
- gallstones can recur once treatment is stopped
Side effects of ursodeoxycholic acid are uncommon and are usually mild. The most commonly reported side effects are feeling sick, being sick and itchy skin.
The use of ursodeoxycholic acid isn't usually recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Sexually active women should use either a barrier method of contraception, such as a condom, or a low-dose oestrogen contraceptive pill while taking ursodeoxycholic acid, as it may affect other types of oral contraceptive pills.
Ursodeoxycholic acid tablets are occasionally also prescribed as a precaution against gallstones if it's thought you're at risk of developing them. For example, you may be prescribed ursodeoxycholic acid if you've recently had weight loss surgery, as rapid weight loss can cause gallstones to grow.