The liver makes bile. The bile flows down tubes (ducts) to the very beginning of the small intestine, to mix with food leaving the stomach. The food and bile flow through the intestine, and bile helps the intestine absorb oil and fat. When we aren't eating, the bile flow backs up into the gallbladder to be stored. At the next meal, the gallbladder squeezes and the stored bile flows down through the system into the small intestine. So, the gallbladder can be viewed as a little storage tank for bile.
However, the gallbladder can stop functioning well, and this is usually due to some level of inflammation. This may occur for many reasons. Most commonly, it is because the bile has turned solid and formed stones within the gallbladder. These are gallstones. Gallstones can irritate the gallbladder, leading to symptoms such as pain in the right upper abdomen, nausea, and vomiting. Frequently the pain will radiate to the right mid-back. Gallstones can also escape into the downstream bile ducts, creating further problems such as backup of bile in the liver, or inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).
Whether the gallbladder inflammation is associated with stones or not, removal of the gallbladder is frequently indicated to alleviate symptoms. This operation used to be done through a relatively large incision in the right upper abdomen, which frequently led to a lot of pain and sometimes hospitalizations lasting for days. Fortunately, the development of laparoscopic techniques has made removal of the gallbladder much less traumatic and painful. This type of surgery uses several small incisions and a camera in the abdomen. It allows the surgeon to remove the gallbladder from its attachments and remove it through one of the small incisions and extract it from the abdomen with minimal distress to the patient. If needed, the bile ducts can be x-rayed during the operation to verify that there are no stones in the duct system. This operation is frequently done on an outpatient basis, with most patients returning to work in as little as a few days.
Like any operation or procedure, laparoscopic removal of the gallbladder has certain risks. Fortunately, because this operation is so common, General Surgeons have developed the experience required to accomplish it very safely. As a result, complications are very rare.