can you live without a gallbladder

Ongoing pressure or nausea after you eat or sudden right upper belly pain may mean you have gallbladder problems.

Your doctor may recommend gallbladder surgery to remove your gallbladder. In most cases, you may not have a choice — your gallbladder has to come out to prevent life-threatening complications.

The idea of getting an organ removed can sound scary. Many people ask a common question: Can you live without a gallbladder?

The short answer is yes. Your gallbladder isn’t essential, so you can live normally without it.

However, if you need to have your gallbladder removed, here’s what you should know about gallbladder surgery.

What Is Your Gallbladder?

Your gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped hollow organ that sits under your liver and next to your pancreas. These organs are all part of your body’s biliary system.

To understand the gallbladder’s role in your health, you first need to know about bile.

What is bile?

Bile is a thick greenish, yellowish, or brownish fluid that helps your body digest fats from food. It breaks down the fats you eat into fatty acids. Your liver produces about 27 to 34 fluid ounces of bile daily. Bile is mostly made up of soluble cholesterol.

What does your gallbladder do?

Your gallbladder concentrates and stores bile from your liver until your body needs it for digestion. When you eat fatty foods, your gallbladder squeezes bile through the bile duct and into your small intestine. After it gets there, it mixes with partially digested food and helps your body break down and absorb fats from food.

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Why Do I Need Gallbladder Removal Surgery?

Your gallbladder stores bile in the fasting state. It squeezes when you eat a fatty meal to give extra bile to aid in digestion. However, when there is an imbalance of bile composition gallstones can form and migrate to the bile duct, potentially causing multiple problems.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), about 10% to 15% of the U.S. population, or about 25 million people, have gallstones. Each year, about 250,000 people require treatment for gallstones or related complications, usually surgery, according to the NIDDK.

Gallstone symptoms

Gallstone symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Heartburn or indigestion.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Pressure or pain.
  • Yellow or jaundiced skin or eyes.
  • Sudden pain in your upper right abdomen. Doctors refer to this condition as biliary colic or gallbladder attack.

Gallstone complications

When gallstones cause symptoms, it’s a sign that you’ve started to develop complications, including:

  • Gallbladder inflammation, also called cholecystitis.
  • Gallstone pancreatitis, an inflammation of your pancreas.
  • Bile duct obstruction and jaundice.

People with gallstone symptoms require treatment — and that often means gallbladder removal surgery. Left untreated, gallstones can lead to life-threatening problems.

Cholecystectomy is the surgical term for removing your gallbladder. A cholecystectomy is one of the most common operations on adults in the U.S., the NIDDK states.

Diagnosing Gallbladder Problems

If you have symptoms of gallbladder problems, your doctor will do a physical exam. Tests to diagnose gallstones and gallbladder problems can include:

  • Ultrasound.
  • CT scan.
  • Nuclear Scan.
  • MRI.

Types of Gallbladder Surgery

Doctors do two types of surgery, both under general anesthesia, to remove your gallbladder:

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy

This minimally invasive method is the most common for gallbladder removal. It involves making three to four small incisions to insert a laparoscope and surgical instruments.

Ideal candidates for this procedure often have severe gallbladder issues or previous upper abdominal surgeries. Some use a robotic surgery system, which operates similarly but with robotic assistance.

This outpatient surgery typically lasts one to two hours. Patients usually go home the same day, after they can drink fluids. Most return to normal activities within a week.

Open cholecystectomy

Surgeons use this method when the gallbladder has become very inflamed or infected. It needs a larger incision to handle issues that laparoscopic surgery can’t. These include poor visibility, obesity, prior abdominal scars, and bleeding issues.

How long does gallbladder surgery take?

Open surgery takes less than two hours. However, recovery may require a hospital stay of up to a week and a recovery period of up to a month before resuming normal activities.

What Happens After Gallbladder Surgery?

After gallbladder surgery, bile will flow directly from your liver to your small intestine to help break down fat from the foods you eat. That’s why you don’t need your gallbladder to live.

Immediately following your surgery, it’s common to feel:

  • Pain at the incision sites or belly
  • Pain in your shoulders from the air pumped into your belly.
  • Nausea or vomiting from the general anesthesia.

These side effects should wear off in 24 to 48 hours.

Some people may have to defecate more frequently or have softer stools or diarrhea after gallbladder surgery. For most people, bowel changes last four to eight weeks.

What can you eat after gallbladder surgery?

Immediately after gallbladder removal surgery, your surgeon may put you on a liquid diet for a few days. This may include clear liquids, broths, and even some gelatin cups.

After that, there’s no specific diet you need to follow. But these tips help your liver and body adjust to its new bile flow and ease bowel symptoms.

  • Avoid eating too much fat at one meal.
  • Follow a high-fiber diet, but slowly increase the amount of fiber you eat daily over several weeks. Adding soluble fiber may also help bind the bile in your stomach and help you avoid gastritis, according to The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  • Limit your intake of high-fat foods for several months following surgery.
  • Slowly increase the amount of fat you eat.
  • Slowly increase your meal size; eat smaller meals at first.
  • Stay well hydrated. Aim for eight to 10 glasses of water daily.

If you have problems with reflux, avoid or limit the following:

  • Alcohol.
  • Caffeinated or carbonated beverages, including coffee and sodas.
  • Chocolate.
  • Citrus foods and juices.
  • Onions.
  • Tomato-based foods.
  • Spicy foods.
  • Vinegar-based foods and dressings.

When to see your doctor?

Your surgeon will let you know when to come back to see them. Most people will need to see their surgeon two to three weeks after gallbladder removal surgery.

While rare, complications from gallbladder surgery include injury or infection to the bile duct, large intestine, or small intestine. If that happens, you may need one or more surgeries to repair the injury. Call your doctor right away if you have:

  • Blood, pus, or redness that spreads or worsens from any of the surgical incisions.
  • Breathing problems or a cough that doesn’t improve.
  • Continued nausea or vomiting.
  • Difficulty eating or drinking.
  • A fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Severe pain or swelling in your belly.
  • Yellow eyes or skin.

Physiology, Gallbladder. StatPearls. Link.

How does the gallbladder work? InformedHealth.org. Link.

Galled by the Gallbladder? National Institutes of Health News In Health. Link.

Bile. MedlinePlus. Link.

Gallstones. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (NIDDK). Link.

Treatment for Gallstones. NIDDK. Link.

Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy. Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons. Link.

Diagnosis of Gallstones. NIDDK. Link.

Laparoscopic gallbladder removal. MedlinePlus. Link

What Medical Nutrition Therapy Guideline Is Recommended Post-Cholecystectomy? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Link

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