Chances are, unless you’re a doctor, you don’t think much about the gallbladder. It’s one of those organs you may even forget exists until something goes wrong. But when there is a problem, it can very quickly become impossible to ignore.
That’s because unlike the heart or the lungs, a healthy gallbladder goes on about its business without any noticeable motion, sound, or sensation. But when something is wrong, it can be quite painful.
Small But Important
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ that’s located just below the liver in the upper right portion of the abdomen. Though it’s only about four inches long, it plays an important role in the metabolic process.
After the liver produces bile, a compound used to digest fat and help the body absorb fat soluble vitamins and nutrients, it stores it in the gallbladder. Once fatty foods enter the small intestine, your gallbladder releases that bile so the food can be processed properly.
But like all organs, the gallbladder can run into a number of different problems. The first condition to be on the lookout for is cholelithiasis, the formation of gallstones. Gallstones are solid masses that form inside the gallbladder, made up of cholesterol, bile salts, and bilirubin. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball.
A gallstone by itself isn’t a problem at all and can even go away on its own before you notice any symptoms. It’s when the stone moves into an area where it can obstruct the gallbladder’s normal function that it becomes an issue.
Primary And Secondary
Gallstones can form in one of two places. A “secondary stone” is one that forms in the gallbladder itself and is the kind that can come and go without you ever noticing it. A “primary stone” is one that forms within the bile duct, the passageway between the gallbladder and the small intestine.
Less Common, More Serious
A primary stone is less common than a secondary stone but causes problems at a much higher rate. That’s because it’s already in place to block or reduce the flow of the gallbladder and potentially cause infection. A secondary stone has to become dislodged and move into the duct before that happens.
When the bile duct is blocked, bile builds up, irritating the gallbladder. This leads to swelling, infection, and intense pain. Over time, the gallbladder is damaged until it can no longer fully function.
In some cases, untreated gallstones can lead to a perforated gallbladder. Meaning that a hole forms in the wall of the organ, which can allow the leakage of infection into other parts of the body, causing a widespread and severe infection.
There is another condition called gallstone ileus, which is rare but can be fatal. It occurs when a gallstone manages to pass through the bile duct and enter the intestine but once there, blocks it. It can require emergency surgery to clear the blockage.
A person with gallstones can also develop empyema, a condition in which pus develops in the gallbladder. It will cause severe pain in the abdomen and can be life-threatening if not treated. People with diabetes, reduced immune systems, and obesity all have an increased risk of developing this condition.
Repeated gallstone attacks can damage the gallbladder permanently, leading to a rigid, scarred gallbladder. The symptoms of this are hard to pinpoint because they’re relatively common and somewhat innocuous. They are abdominal fullness, indigestion, increased gas, and diarrhea.
It is also possible to have two different types of growths in the gallbladder. The less dangerous is a gallbladder polyp, which is an accumulation of the membrane tissue inside the gallbladder that is normally shed by the body.
Most polyps don’t have any noticeable symptoms and are usually found accidentally when someone is having an ultrasound performed on their abdomen. Most polyps are benign, but if they happen to be larger than around a centimeter, it is recommended that the polyp be removed.
That’s because a larger polyp may be indicative of the other type of gallbladder growth, which is gallbladder cancer. It’s a fairly rare form of cancer, affecting less than 4,000 Americans each year. However, it is one of the deadliest forms of cancer with a survival rate of less than 20 percent.
Signs Of Trouble
While the symptoms may vary a bit depending on which gallbladder condition you have, there are six signs that may indicate you have a problem with your gallbladder. The first of them is pain in the mid or upper-right section of the abdomen.
That pain may come and go and varies from mild and irregular to very severe and frequent pain. Gallbladder pain can often cause additional pain in the chest and back. Movement typically doesn’t have an impact on gallbladder pain.
The second symptom is a mix of nausea and vomiting, which may occur when there is only a short term gallbladder problem. Long term gallbladder diseases and disorders may lead to chronic digestive problems such as acid reflux and gas, in addition to nausea and vomiting.
You may also suffer from fever or chills. Of course, this by itself is not necessarily indicative of a problem with the gallbladder. However, in the presence of other symptoms, it points strongly toward a gallbladder infection.
The remaining symptoms are changes in bowel movement habits and light colored or chalky stool — all may indicate a chronic gallbladder disease. A person may also notice that their urine is darker than usual. Finally, they may experience jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes.
Seek Medical Help
If you suspect that you may have a problem with your gallbladder, seek medical attention. If your pain is mild and intermittent, it may not require immediate attention though you should review it with your doctor at your next check up. If your pain is severe or constant, seek medical help as quickly as possible.