While some people may write off pain in the belly or abdominal area that comes and goes as simple indigestion, it may actually be a bigger issue with the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small sac found in the upper right part of the abdomen, and if it’s not working correctly, it can lead to painful symptoms.
The gallbladder stores bile made by the liver. When you eat any food with fat, the gallbladder squeezes bile into the intestine to help the body absorb the fat. Absorption of the fat helps the body to absorb fat soluble vitamins and other nutrients.
Bile is a thick fluid that has several substances, including cholesterol, dissolved in a solution. In many people, bile develops a slight imbalance that allows these substances to form small crystals in the gallbladder. Eventually these crystals may form stones that range from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a golf ball. Gallstones form more commonly in patients with the “Fs”: female, fertile, fat, family history and flatulent (gassy). Unfortunately, gallstones often form when individuals lose weight and are common in women shortly after childbirth.
Once stones form in the gallbladder, they can start to cause problems. Gallstones may cause the gallbladder wall to become irritated. They may also block the outlet of the gallbladder and start an infection, called cholecystitis. Patients with this problem may have pain under the right rib cage, fever, nausea and vomiting. If untreated, the gallbladder can develop gangrene, or infection can spread. Surgery to remove the gallbladder is the best treatment.
A serious complication of gallstones occurs when the stones make their way out of the gallbladder and become lodged in the duct system that leads to the intestine, which can cause pancreatitis. This requires hospitalization and is characterized by severe pain in the mid-abdomen, nausea and vomiting, yellow eyes and skin and dark urine.
Occasionally, the gallbladder may cause more subtle symptoms, such as aching pain in the upper right side of the abdomen. If gallstones aren’t found on ultrasound tests, another test can be done to evaluate the function of the gallbladder, which may show that the gallbladder is no longer ejecting the bile. Surgery usually is needed to remove the diseased gallbladder.
Anyone experiencing signs and symptoms of a gallbladder problem should see a physician. A physician will likely order an ultrasound of the gallbladder to look for gallstones, as well as blood tests of the liver and pancreas.
Gallbladder removal is a common, minimally invasive surgery that can usually be performed in an outpatient setting. Because the gallbladder is not likely to be functioning any longer in patients with gallbladder disease, removal does not lead to any problems. The bile ducts take over the function of storing the bile after surgery. Talk to your doctor if you think you may have a gallbladder issue.
Dr. Kathleen Martin is with KentuckyOne Health Gastroenterology Associates.