Most people don’t pay much attention to their gallbladder until it starts causing trouble. However, when the gallbladder starts acting up, it can be quite painful and require immediate action.
What is the gallbladder?
The gallbladder is a 4-inch-long pear-shaped organ found under the liver in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen. It stores the bile the liver makes to digest fat.
The liver sends the bile to the gallbladder through a tube that connects the two organs called the hepatic duct. When food is eaten, the cells of the intestines produce a hormone called cholecystokinin. This hormone causes the gallbladder to contract, releasing bile into the common bile duct.
In a healthy gallbladder, this process happens painlessly. However, when the gallbladder stops working properly or the bile ducts are blocked, it can cause a lot of pain and discomfort.
Common gallbladder conditions
Some common gallbladder problems include:
Gallstones are solid masses of cholesterol and pigment of variable sizes. Gallstones occur when excess amounts of fat and bile cause crystals to form. These crystals may combine over time and expand into stones.
Stones can be as small as a single grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. They may or may not cause symptoms.
Inflamed gallbladder (cholecystitis)
Acute or sudden cholecystitis occurs when bile can’t leave the gallbladder. This commonly happens when a gallstone obstructs the tube that bile uses to travel into and out of the gallbladder.
When this duct is blocked, bile builds up. The excess bile irritates the gallbladder, leading to swelling and infection.
Dysfunctional gallbladder or chronic gallbladder disease
Repeated episodes of gallstone attacks or cholecystitis may damage the gallbladder permanently. This can lead to a rigid, scarred gallbladder.
In this case, symptoms are less colicky but tend to be hard to pinpoint. They include abdominal fullness, indigestion, and increased gas and diarrhea.
Symptoms of a gallbladder problem
Symptoms of gallbladder problem include:
- Pain in the mid- or upper-right section of the abdomen. Most of the time, gallbladder pain is colicky in nature, meaning that it comes and goes. However, pain from gallbladder problems ranges from mild and irregular to very severe, frequent pain. Gallbladder pain often causes pain in the chest and back.
- Nausea or vomiting. Any gallbladder problem may cause nausea or vomiting. Long-term gallbladder diseases and disorders may lead to long-standing digestive problems that cause frequent nausea.
- Fever. A fever or shaking chill signals an infection in the body. Alongside other symptoms, fever and chills may point to a gallbladder problem or infection.
- Changes in bowel movements. Gallbladder problems often cause changes in bowel habits. Frequent, unexplained diarrhea can signal a long-term gallbladder disease. Light-colored or chalky stools may point to a problem with the bile ducts.
- Changes in urine. Patients suffering from gallbladder issues may notice darker than normal urine. Dark urine may indicate a bile duct block.
- Jaundice. Yellowing of the skin occurs when liver bile doesn’t make it to the intestines. This normally happens due to a problem with the liver or due to a blockage in the bile ducts caused by gallstones.
When to see a doctor
Anyone with gallbladder symptoms should seek medical attention. Mild, intermittent pain that goes away on its own does not need immediate attention. Patients with this type of pain should make an appointment with their doctor to be examined further.
If the symptoms are more severe and include the following, a patient should be seen immediately:
- Upper-right quadrant pain that does not go away within 5 hours
- Fever, nausea, or vomiting
- Changes in bowel movement and urine
This combination of symptoms can indicate a serious infection or inflammation that needs immediate treatment.