Understanding the gallbladder
Your gallbladder is a four-inch, pear-shaped organ. It’s positioned under your liver in the upper-right section of your abdomen. The gallbladder stores bile, a combination of fluids, fat, and cholesterol. Bile helps break down fat from food in your intestine. The gallbladder delivers bile into the small intestine. This allows fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients to be more easily absorbed into the bloodstream.
Symptoms of a gallbladder problem
Gallbladder conditions share similar symptoms. These include:
The most common symptom of a gallbladder problem is pain. This pain usually occurs in the mid- to upper-right section of your abdomen. It can be mild and intermittent, or it can be quite severe and frequent. In some cases, the pain can begin to radiate to other areas of the body, including the back and chest.
Nausea or vomiting
Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of all types of gallbladder problems. However, only chronic gallbladder disease may cause digestive problems, such as acid reflux and gas.
Fever or chills
Chills or an unexplained fever may signal that you have an infection. If you have an infection, you need treatment before it worsens and becomes dangerous. The infection can become life-threatening if it spreads to other parts of the body.
Having more than four bowel movements per day for at least three months may be a sign of chronic gallbladder disease.
Yellow-tinted skin, or jaundice, may be a sign of a block or stone in the common bile duct. The common bile duct is the channel that leads from the gallbladder to the small intestine.
Unusual stools or urine
Lighter-colored stools and dark urine are possible signs of a common bile duct block.
Potential gallbladder problems
Any disease that affects your gallbladder is considered a gallbladder disease. The following conditions are all gallbladder diseases.
Inflammation of the gallbladder
Inflammation of the gallbladder is called cholecystitis. It can be either acute (short-term), or chronic (long-term). Chronic inflammation is the result of several acute cholecystitis attacks. Inflammation may eventually damage the gallbladder, making it lose its ability to function correctly.
Gallstones are small, hardened deposits that form in the gallbladder. These deposits can develop and go undetected for years. In fact, many people have gallstones and aren’t aware of them. They eventually cause problems, including inflammation, infection, and pain. Gallstones typically cause acute cholecystitis.
Gallstones are usually very small, no more than a few millimeters wide. However, they can grow to several centimeters. Some people develop only one gallstone, while others develop several. As the gallstones grow in size, they can begin to block the channels that lead out of the gallbladder.
Most gallstones are formed from cholesterol found in the gallbladder’s bile. Another type of gallstone, a pigment stone, is formed from calcium bilirubinate. Calcium bilirubinate is a chemical that’s produced when the body breaks down red blood cells. This type of stone is rarer.
Common bile duct stones (choledocholithiasis)
When gallstones occur in the common bile duct, it’s known as choledocholithiasis. Bile is ejected from the gallbladder, passed through small tubes, and deposited in the common bile duct. It then enters the small intestine.
In most cases, common bile duct stones are actually gallstones that developed in the gallbladder and then passed into the bile duct. This type of stone is called a secondary common bile duct stone, or secondary stone.
Sometimes stones form in the common bile duct itself. These stones are called primary common bile duct stones, or primary stones. This rare type of stone is more likely to cause an infection than a secondary stone.
Gallbladder disease without stones
Gallstones don’t cause every type of gallbladder problem. Gallbladder disease without stones, also called acalculous gallbladder disease, can occur. In this case, you may experience symptoms commonly associated with gallstones without actually having stones.
Common bile duct infection
An infection may develop if the common bile duct is obstructed. Treatment for this condition is successful if the infection is found early. If it’s not, the infection may spread and become fatal.
Abscess of the gallbladder
A small percentage of people with gallstones may also develop pus in the gallbladder. This condition is called empyema. Pus is a combination of white blood cells, bacteria, and dead tissue. The development of pus, also known as an abscess, leads to severe abdominal pain. If empyema isn’t diagnosed and treated, it can become life-threatening as the infection spreads to other parts of the body.
A gallstone may travel into the intestine and block it. This condition, known as gallstone ileus, is rare but can be fatal. It’s most common among individuals who are older than 65 years old.
If you wait too long to seek treatment, gallstones can lead to a perforated gallbladder. This is a life-threatening condition. If the tear isn’t detected, a dangerous, widespread abdominal infection may develop.
Polyps are abnormal tissue growths. These growths are typically benign, or noncancerous. Small gallbladder polyps may not need to be removed. In most cases, they don’t pose any risk to you or your gallbladder. However, larger polyps may need to be surgically removed before they develop into cancer or cause other problems.
A healthy gallbladder has very muscular walls. Over time, calcium deposits can stiffen the gallbladder walls, making them rigid. This condition is called porcelain gallbladder.
If you have this condition, you have a high risk of developing gallbladder cancer.
Gallbladder cancer is rare. If it’s not detected and treated, it can spread beyond the gallbladder quickly.
Treatment for a gallbladder problem
Treatment will depend on your specific gallbladder problem and may include:
- over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as ibuprofen (Aleve, Motrin)
- prescription pain medications, such as hydrocodone and morphine (Duramorph, Kadian)
- lithotripsy, a procedure that uses shock waves to break apart gallstones and other masses
- surgery to remove gallstones
- surgery to remove the entire gallbladder
Not all cases will require medical treatment. You may also be able to find pain relief with natural remedies, such as exercise and a heated compress.
The gallbladder diet
If you’re experiencing gallbladder problems, you may find it beneficial to adjust your diet. Foods that may aggravate gallbladder disease include:
- foods high in trans fats and other unhealthy fats
- processed foods
- refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and sugar
Instead, try to build your diet around:
- fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
- calcium-rich foods, such as low-fat dairy and dark leafy greens
- foods containing vitamin C, such as berries
- plant-based protein, such as tofu, beans and lentils
- healthy fats, such as nuts and fish
- coffee, which reduces your risk of gallstones and other gallbladder diseases
When to see a doctor
Symptoms of a gallbladder problem may come and go. However, you’re more likely to develop a gallbladder problem if you’ve had one before. While gallbladder problems are rarely deadly, they should still be treated. You can prevent gallbladder problems from worsening if you take action and see a doctor. Symptoms that should prompt you to seek immediate medical attention include:
- abdominal pain that lasts at least 5 hours
- pale stools
- sweating, low-grade fever, or chills, if they’re accompanied by the above symptoms