How often do you think about the health of your Gallbladder? It’s probably safe to say “Rarely” or “Never.” As long as your gallbladder is functioning how it should, helping your body break down food, it probably doesn’t rise to our conscious thought. However, if a problem should occur with it, your Gallbladder will certainly catch your attention. Although it is a relatively small organ, the Gallbladder can cause severe pain and require emergency care.
The Gallbladder is a 4-5 inch long, pear-shaped organ found below the liver in the upper right side of the abdomen. Produced by the liver, bile is stored in the Gallbladder. The Gallbladder’s function is to store and then release extra bile into the small intestine to aid in the digestion of fats.
What is Gallbladder Disease?
Gallbladder disease can include infection, inflammation, stones, or blockage of the bile ducts draining the Gallbladder. Some common examples of Gallbladder diseases may include:
- Gallstones or Cholelithiasis: These are solid masses of cholesterol or bile pigments which can cause blockage in the bile ducts that drain the Gallbladder.
- Common bile duct stones: Small ducts in the liver carry bile to larger ducts and ultimately drain into the common bile duct. Sometimes gallstones can be carried from the gallbladder into these ducts and lodge in the common bile duct. These are known as common bile duct stones and they can lead to back up of bile (or biliary obstruction), jaundice, and infection.
- Cancer: Gallbladder cancer is rare and affects less than 4,000 Americans per year, but unfortunately, we see this problem every couple of years in our practice. Gallbladder cancer is difficult to detect when early and is often advanced when it is found at time of surgery for what is usually thought to be cholecystitis.
- Cholecystitis (or Gallbladder inflammation): This may be an inflammation or even a bacterial infection of the gallbladder. It is possible to have cholecystitis with or without gallstones present, but it is more common with stones and seems to be more severe usually. The stones are a foreign body which can allow bacteria to grow and adhere to their surfaces where antibiotics cannot be effective to clear the bacteria.
- Growth of tissue in the Gallbladder: Polyps or overgrowth of the typical glands within the wall of the gallbladder (adenomyomatosis) may occur.
- Sclerosing cholangitis (uncommon)
- Congenital defects of gallbladder
- Gangrene or abscess: This is an advancement of cholecystitis to a severe state with advanced infection leading to pus or even death of a portion of the wall or the entire gallbladder. These patients usually did not have timely intervention of cholecystitis for some reason and they often have severe complications and are the most sick of gallbladder patients.
- Chronic acalculous gallbladder disease: means chronic inflammation of the gallbladder without the presence of stones.
What are the symptoms of Gallbladder Disease?
Pain / Biliary Colic
The most common symptom of any kind of Gallbladder related issue is intermittent pain known as Biliary Colic. Usually, the patient experiences a severe gripping or stabbing pain in the upper abdomen near the rib cage, most often towards the right side, which can also radiate to the upper back. Some patients may feel the pain behind the breastbone or even within the left upper abdomen.
Nausea and Vomiting
All kinds of Gallbladder diseases cause nausea and vomiting. Sometimes, patients experience nausea after eating without having pain. When nausea alone is the presenting symptom, gallbladder disease can be more difficult to identify. Long-term Gallbladder problems may lead to chronic digestive issues that can cause frequent nausea, loose stools, or crampy intestinal pain.
Fever or Chills
Fever usually signals that there is an infection in the body. If you are having fever and chills, then your doctor may suspect a Gallbladder infection. This is more of an emergency and should prompt urgent medical attention if you believe your fever is due to gallbladder disease.
Disturbed Bowel Movements
Gallbladder issues often lead to changes in digestion and bowel movements. Unexplained and frequent diarrhea after meals can be a sign of chronic Gallbladder disease. Stools may become light-colored or chalky if bile ducts are obstructed.
Patients may notice that urine color has become darker than before. Dark or orange colored urine can indicate a blockage in the bile duct.
Yellowish discoloration of the skin is a sign of blockage of the common bile duct due to a stone. It happens because bile does not successfully reach the intestines and leeches into the bloodstream. Yellow discoloration of the whites of the eyes (scleral icterus) are an early sign of jaundice.
When Should I See a Doctor if I Have Gallbladder Disease Symptoms?
If you are experiencing symptoms related to Gallbladder disease then you should seek medical attention. Intermittent mild pain or nausea may not need immediate medical or surgical intervention. However, you should make an appointment with your primary care provider or a General Surgeon to be further examined and take steps to diagnose the issue and prevent complications of Gallbladder disease.
If you have severe symptoms like:
- Fever associated with nausea and vomiting
- Upper-right abdominal pain that does not subside even after 5 hours
- Changes in urination and bowel movement
Then you should see a surgeon immediately because these symptoms can indicate serious inflammation or infection of the Gallbladder that may need immediate Gallbladder surgery.