Surgery to remove the gallbladder, also called cholecystectomy, is often recommended by doctors to treat gallstones or to remove a diseased or improperly functioning gallbladder. Patients who have gallbladder surgery often find relief from their previous conditions, but some also experience subsequent digestive problems. Knowing what to expect can help those preparing for or recovering from gallbladder surgery cope better with these symptoms and understand what lifestyle changes can help lessen their effect.
The gallbladder lives just below the liver and plays a role in digestive health. Its primary role is to store the bile that the liver creates. It looks like a small pouch and expands to about the size of a pear when full. Before eating, it is typically full of bile. After eating, the gallbladder squeezes out some of the bile, which helps the body digest fat, into the small intestine.
One commonly reported symptom after gallbladder surgery is diarrhea. With the loss of the gallbladder, bile is no longer delivered in small, measured doses but moves into the intestine as soon as it is created by the liver. Bile causes the intestine to secrete fluids. Since the intestine now receives larger quantities of bile than before, this increased intestinal fluid can cause food to move quickly through the intestine, causing diarrhea. Often, bloating and gas accompany the diarrhea.
Nausea and Vomiting
Immediately after surgery, some patients may experience nausea and even vomiting. These symptoms typically do not appear immediately. Instead, once the patient begins to move around or get up out of bed, nausea is common. Hospitals recommend that patients who are nauseous and vomiting let the medical staff know as this can interfere with oral pain medication as well as cause physical discomfort.
If symptoms of gallbladder problems continue after surgery or new symptoms occur, the patient may have postcholecystectomy syndrome. According to a 2007 paper by Dr. Eldon A. Shaffer, published in the Merck Manuals Online Medical Library, this condition appears in up to 40 percent of patients. It produces a symptom called dyspepsia, which is a term for upper abdominal pain, bloating, belching, nausea and a feeling of being full after eating only a small amount of food.
Chronic diarrhea in patients who have undergone gallbladder removal surgery has been successfully treated with a drug called cholestyramine (brand name Questran). This drug was originally created as treatment for high cholesterol levels in the blood. It works by trapping and deactivating the bile salts found in the intestine, which are part of the bile excreted by the liver.
After having gallbladder surgery, diet takes on an important role. Removal of the gallbladder has altered how food is processed in the intestine and some foods can aggravate the symptoms of diarrhea and bloating. During recovery, patients are advised to consume a liquid diet to avoid overwhelming the digestive system and to lessen feelings of nausea. Foods that cause gas, such as broccoli, should be eaten in moderation or avoided to reduce bloating.