The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ connected to both the liver and the small intestine. This organ stores bile, which aids in the digestion of fat. However, if the gallbladder needs to be removed, the bile duct enlarges to take on the gallbladder's role. Side effects after gallbladder removal, or cholecystectomy, can be immediate and related to the surgery, or long term and linked to physical changes after surgery, complications from surgery or other pre-existing conditions.
The degree of pain after this surgery is commonly linked to the method of surgery performed. The open, or traditional method of cholecystectomy involves a single large incision, but the more common and less invasive laparoscopic method requires only 4 small incisions. Pain at the incision site may occur after a either type of surgery, but this pain is usually more on an issue if you had the open surgery. This pain will improve with time. Incisions from open surgery may take up to a week to heal, and full recovery may take several weeks. However, incisions from a laparoscopic cholecystectomy heal in a few days, and most people fully recover from this surgery within a week.
Other Short-Term Side Effects
Many people feel tired after surgery, and this is often blamed on the anesthesia. A lack of food or fluids in the hours before, during and after the surgery may also cause weakness or fatigue. Nausea or vomiting may occur regardless of the type of surgery performed, due to a side effect of the anesthesia. This nausea often resolves in a matter of days, but treatment with anti-nausea medications may be needed. Finally, constipation can occur as a side effect of the anesthesia or pain medications, or due to a lack of food or physical activity. Stool softeners are often prescribed after surgery to counter this common side effect.
Long-Term Side Effects
A cholecystectomy is performed to relieve the pain and discomfort caused by gallstones, and most people who have a cholecystectomy do not have digestive problems after the surgery. However, between 5 to 40 percent of people who have had their gallbladder removed have gastrointestinal symptoms that continue or start after surgery, according to a March 2015 review published in "Hellenic Journal of Surgery." These symptoms may include heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, gas, bloating or abdominal pain, and may be caused from the change in bile flow that occurs after surgery. Bile normally flows in spurts from the gallbladder to the intestines. After gallbladder removal, the flow changes to a constant trickle, which may contribute to diarrhea or cause stomach irritation if this bile flows back into the stomach. Surgical complications, such as bile duct injuries, or previously undiagnosed gastrointestinal conditions may also be to blame.
If you have stomach cramping, severe pain, chills, fever or increased odor or drainage from your incision, contact your doctor. The American College of Surgeons also recommends you call your surgeon if you are vomiting and unable to keep fluids down, if your skin turns yellow or if you have not had a bowel movement for 3 days. If you have gastrointestinal symptoms that continue or begin after surgery, such as nausea, heartburn, bloating or abdominal pain, let your doctor know.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD