What do you know about your gallbladder? Do you know where it is? Do you know what it does? And do you know the signs and symptoms of a gallbladder that is not healthy?
Read on for Gallbladder 101 and be sure to test your knowledge with the fact-or-fiction quiz at the end.
What is a gallbladder?
Your gallbladder is a small sac-like organ located on the upper right side of the abdomen, just right under your liver. The gallbladder is connected to your liver and small intestines by little tubes known as bile ducts. The gallbladder stores bile, which is a fluid made by your liver that aids in digestion and helps to break down fatty foods. When fatty foods you eat reach your small intestines, your gallbladder squeezes out bile through your bile ducts and into the small intestines to break down the fats in those foods.
What are gallstones?
You’ve probably heard of gallstones, which is the most common gallbladder ailment. About 6% of men and 9% of women in the U.S. have gallstones. Most people who have gallstones do not have any symptoms.
There are two types of gallstones: cholesterol and pigment.
The majority of gallstones are cholesterol gallstones. They are made when excess ingested cholesterol forms deposits in the gallbladder.
Pigment gallstones are made of debris that collects in the gallbladder from the rupture of red blood cells, parasitic infections, or bacterial infections.
What are the risk factors for developing gallstones?
- Female sex
- Genetics and family history
- Use of certain medications
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Poor diet
- Medical conditions that cause rupture of blood cells, such as sickle cell disease
- Liver disease
- Age over 40
- Rapid weight loss
- Frequent fasting
What are the symptoms of gallstones?
Most people with gallstones have no symptoms and may be diagnosed with gallstones when being evaluated for other conditions. When gallstones cause symptoms, it is called gallstone disease. The classic symptom of gallstone disease is known as biliary colic, which is usually described as constant dull pain in the right upper abdomen, middle of the chest, or middle of the upper abdomen. The pain may move around to the back or to the right shoulder blade. Pain is usually reported after eating, especially meals with fatty or fried foods.
Other symptoms may include the following:
- Fullness after eating
- Burning in the upper abdomen
- Chest pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal pain
How are gallstones diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider may order certain tests to diagnose gallstones. Such tests may include:
- Abdominal ultrasound: the most commonly used diagnostic tool to diagnose gallstones and is non-invasive.
- Blood tests: such as blood counts, liver and pancreas function tests.
- Endoscopic ultrasound: a more invasive test that can help diagnose small stones which can be missed on an abdominal ultrasound.
- Other scans: include HIDA scans, CT, MRI, or scans of the pancreas.
Your healthcare provider may recommend other tests to evaluate for other conditions that can mimic the symptoms of gallstones.
What kind of complications can gallstones cause?
The most common complication of gallstones is inflammation and infection of the gallbladder, called cholecystitis. Symptoms of cholecystitis can include pain on the right upper abdomen, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Cholecystitis can also result in abnormal bloodwork and abnormal ultrasound.
Other complications of gallstones include:
- Gallbladder pancreatitis
- Gallstone ileus
- Gallbladder cancer
Gallbladder Fact or Fiction
I cannot live without my gallbladder.
Many people have their gallbladders removed without any complications. Some people may have to take medications to help aid in digestion after their gallbladder is removed, but most people do not have any symptoms.
If I have gallstones, I will have to have surgery.
Your healthcare provider will recommend treatment based on your signs, symptoms, and diagnostic results. Some people can watch and wait. Some people can control their symptoms with diet and lifestyle changes. Some people may be treated with medications to help dissolve gallstones which may need to be used long-term. Some people may have to have surgery. It is best to discuss all of your options with your healthcare provider
I can make lifestyle changes to help prevent gallstones
Gallstones can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, losing weight slowly, not skipping meals, and eating a well-balanced diet.
Douglas M Heuman, “Gallstones (Cholelithiasis),” Medscape, https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/175667-overview
Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Gallstones,” https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/gallstones
May Clinic, “Gallstones,” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/gallstones/symptoms-causes/syc-20354214
Salam F Zakko, “Overview of gallstone disease in adults,” UptoDate, updated September 5, 2018.
Salam F Zakko, “Overview of nonsurgical management of gallbladder stones,” UptoDate, updated December 5, 2018.