Some people with gallstones have no treatment. They recover from the episode that brought the gallstones to their attention, and they don’t have any more problems. But others need treatment.
The most common management of gallstone disease is surgery. Surgeons may remove your entire gallbladder (cholecystectomy), or just the stones from bile ducts.
You can live a healthy life without your gallbladder - it just means the bile flows directly from your liver to your small intestine.
Gallbladder removal surgery (cholecystectomy) is the only treatment that cures gallstones. It does not affect your ability to digest food.
The most common type of surgery is keyhole or laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Your surgeon will make a few small incisions in your abdomen, insert a miniature video camera and instruments, remove the gallbladder and stitch the incisions closed. The trapped gallstones can be removed at the same time.
If your gallbladder is very inflamed you may need open surgery, which requires a larger cut.
Keyhole surgery is better for most people because recovery is usually faster. You may be able to go home the next day after your operation. If you have open surgery, you may need to stay several days in hospital.
There are medicines that may be used to dissolve gallstones but they are not very effective and some have side effects. The gallstones return after treatment. As such, using medicines to treat gallstones is not commonly recommended.
Shock-wave therapy, also known as extracorporeal shock-wave lithotripsy, is an option if you don’t want surgery. Usually, you will be given medicines to dissolve the gallstones before the procedure.
This procedure is not commonly recommended.
This treatment is only used in certain centres, for the minority of people who have small and soft stones.
Last reviewed: November 2016