General Health

Gallbladder Problems and Symptoms

The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ small enough so that we do not pay much attention to it.

That, however, does not change the fact of how vital the gallbladder is. Its primary function is to store the bile which has been previously produced by the liver. 

By transporting the bile, as needed, the gallbladder helps with the digestion of fats to the small intestine. It also takes part in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients.

Unfortunately, we often see the gallbladder being affected by different issues and symptoms. 

Symptoms of Gallbladder Problems

Gallbladder problems can cause a variety of symptoms. Here are the common gallbladder symptoms to keep an eye on. 

  • Pain: Pain is the most commonly reported symptom of any gallbladder issue. Patients usually suffer from pain in their mid- to upper-right section of the abdomen, where the gallbladder is located. The pain can vary from mild to more severe pain, and it can also be intermittent to more frequent. 

    In more severe cases, it can also spread to other nearby body parts such as the chest and even the back. Biliary colic or gallbladder attack causes sudden, intense pain that can last anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours. 

  • Nausea and/or vomiting: Another common symptom of gallbladder problems is nausea and/or vomiting. Chronic gallbladder issues can even lead to long-standing digestive issues, including frequent nausea. The patient also struggles with discomfort in the abdomen, gas, bloating, etc. 

  • Fever: Fever is a sign that the body is fighting a present infection. An infection is not an uncommon issue in those with gallbladder abscess and common bile duct infection. If you happen to experience fever accompanied by the symptoms as discussed, consult a doctor as soon as possible. The infection can quickly lead to a life-threatening condition when left untreated or is improperly treated.

  • Chronic diarrhea: If you experience chronic diarrhea longer than three months, do consult a doctor. Unexplained chronic diarrhea may be a sign of gallbladder disease. You should also pay attention to your stool. Bile duct issues usually cause light-colored or chalky stools to take place.

  • Jaundice: Jaundice is the term that refers to the yellowing of the skin. This occurrence takes place in cases where the liver bile does not reach the intestines. Jaundice can be caused by liver problems or gallstones that block the common bile duct. 

  • Inflammation of the gallbladder: When gallstones are blocking the common bile duct, a bile buildup happens. This can lead to gallbladder inflammation. Gallbladder inflammation results in symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, etc. 

  • Unusual stools or urine: Other than changes in the bowel movement frequency and the color of the stools, gallbladder problems can cause changes in the urine. When a gallbladder issue is present, the urine usually appears darker than normal. This can indicate a present blockage in the common bile duct. If the urine changes are accompanied by biliary pain and nausea, do consult a doctor as soon as possible. 

Potential Gallbladder Problems

Many things can go wrong when talking about that small yet highly significant body organ.

The truth is that not many of us pay any attention to it, or even know that it exists. This is one of the reasons why it is so easy for things to go wrong with it.

If you happen to notice any of the symptoms discussed before, we kindly recommend consulting a doctor as soon as possible. 

Gallstones

Gallstones or cholelithiasis is a common condition in which small, or sometimes even large, stones form inside the gallbladder. As Harvard researchers suggest, 80% are cholesterol gallstones. The remaining 20% is made of calcium salts and bilirubin. 

The gallstones differ in number, size, and color. Some people may develop only one gallstone, while others develop more. The cholesterol gallstones are yellow, while the bilirubin ones are usually colored brown, black even. 

Speaking of size, it is not uncommon for the gallstone to grow into a bigger formation, so much so that it causes a blockage in the gallbladder channels. A common complication of gallstones is acute cholecystitis. Acute cholecystitis, also known as a gallstone attack or gallbladder attack, is a gallbladder inflammation caused by the cystic ducts’ gallstone blockage. 

Gallbladder stones are quite a common gallbladder problem. Research shows that up to 10-15% of the American population is affected by gallstones. 

Over the years, researchers have identified certain risk factors for gallstone formation. The majority of those risk factors revolve around one’s unhealthy lifestyle choices. 

Other uncontrollable risk factors include being a female, having a family history of gallstones, and being over the age of 60, among others.

Gallstone disease can exist undetected for many years. It is not until they cause their characteristic gallstone symptoms that patients ask for help. Symptomatic gallstones cause symptoms such as gallbladder inflammation, infection, and gallbladder pain. 

Common bile duct stones (Choledocholithiasis)

When gallstones move to the common bile duct, a condition known as choledocholithiasis develops, the common bile duct normally carries bile from the gallbladder to the small intestine. 

Common bile duct stones is not an uncommon condition. Up to 15% of all gallbladder stone patients struggle with common bile duct stones.

There are two types of common bile duct stones. The example that we discussed above is otherwise known as secondary stones. The primary stones are formed within the common bile duct itself. These are much rarer than the secondary one and more likely to cause an infection. 

Gallbladder disease without stones

Acalculous gallbladder disease is a condition in which the common gallbladder symptoms are present without being caused by actual gallstones.

In the absence of gallstones, many possible causes can contribute to the development of acalculous gallbladder disease. Fasting for a long time, rapid weight loss, long-term parenteral nutrition, etc. are common causes of this condition and its symptoms. 

Common bile duct infection

Once the common bile duct is obstructed, the risk of infection increases. If detected early, a common bile duct infection is not a big threat. However, in cases where the infection is missed or diagnosed late, it can spread, increasing the risk of developing a life-threatening condition occurs. 

Abscess of the gallbladder

Gallbladder abscess is also a common gallbladder issue. Patients with gallstones are exposed to the risk of developing pus in the gallbladder. The pus represents a combination of bacteria, dead tissue, and white blood cells.

The condition is then known as gallbladder abscess. Severe abdominal pain is the usual symptom of this condition. If left untreated, the infection can spread, thus causing a life-threatening condition. 

Gallstone ileus

Compared with the previous gallbladder issues discussed, gallstone ileus is one of the rarer, yet still possible issues. When a gallstone travels to the intestine and blocks it, the usual gallstone ileus symptoms occur. It is usually much more common among patients older than 65 years. Gallstone ileus is one of the issues that require treatment as soon as possible, as it can be fatal if left untreated.

Perforated gallbladder

Gallbladder stones can lead to yet another serious health issue if left untreated. This time we are talking about a perforated gallbladder. A perforated gallbladder is usually diagnosed among patients who wait too long before seeking treatment for their gallstones. The gallstones are damaging the gallbladder walls, causing a tear. An undetected tear can easily lead to serious, life-threatening infections even, causing widespread abdominal infection. 

Gallbladder polyps

Polyps are abnormal tissue growths on the surface of the inner wall. They can appear in many places in the human body. Uterus, nose, throat, stomach, and even the gallbladder, are some of the more common places where polyps are seen. Gallbladder polyps can be caused due to inflammation or cholesterol deposits in the muscular walls of the gallbladder. 

The good news is that up to 95% of the gallbladder polyps are benign. However, the remaining 5% are cancerous and can develop into gallbladder cancer. That is why the most common practice for gallbladder polyps includes their complete removal. 

Porcelain gallbladder

Porcelain or calcified gallbladder is a condition in which a calcium buildup has developed on the gallbladder walls. In healthy individuals, the gallbladder walls are made of strong, muscular tissue. That is the only way for the gallbladder to keep the bile where it is, without causing a leak to happen. 

Due to this condition, the gallbladder walls change their look. They now look bluish and brittle, similar to what actual porcelain looks like. The muscular walls are now stiff and lose their elasticity and mobility. This limits the gallbladder’s function, but it also increases the risk of gallbladder cancer. 

Gallbladder cancer

Gallbladder cancer is one of the rarer cancer types diagnosed in humans. The latest research suggests that less than 4,000 American adults are affected by gallbladder cancer each year. However, this does not change the fact that gallbladder cancer is a highly life-threatening issue. #

The reason for that is how easy it is for gallbladder cancer to spread and affect other body parts. Porcelain gallbladder is one of the risk factors for developing gallbladder cancer. Other factors include older age, female gender, obesity, and having a medical history of gallstones.

Diagnosing Gallbladder Problems

Speaking of common gallbladder issues, the treatment and diagnostic methods variate depending on the issue itself. First, let’s discuss the standard diagnostic procedures.

  • Blood tests

  • Enzymes’ tests

  • Ultrasound testing

  • Computer tomography

  • A HIDA scan

  • Magnetic resonance imaging

  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography, etc.

After the doctor has confirmed the root of the problem, he will tend to use one or several of the following treatments. It all depends on the severity of the issue itself, the symptoms, and some general factors such as the patient’s lifestyle, gender, age, etc.

It is essential to mention that not all gallbladder issues require treatment. This again depends on the issue itself. Some gallbladder problems and symptoms can be relieved through the use of natural remedies and lifestyle changes. Others require a more serious approach. 

Treatment for a Gallbladder Problem

Drug therapy

Drug therapy can help relieve many of the present symptoms, but it mainly focuses on relieving gallbladder pain. The doctor can recommend taking an over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen. More severe pain requires prescription drug medications such as hydrocodone and morphine. 

Cholesterol gallstones are usually treated with an oral medication called ursodeoxycholic acid. This medication helps to dissolve the gallstones, thus helping to reduce gallbladder pain and other symptoms. If an infection has developed, antibiotics will be used to help fight it.

Lithotripsy

Lithotripsy is a procedure used to eliminate gallstones. With the use of shock waves, the bigger gallstones are broken into smaller pieces. This makes it easier for the gallstones to pass through the urinary system. 

Gallbladder surgery

More severe cases require surgery. There are a few different surgical procedures to choose from, all depending on the issue itself. Here are the most commonly used surgeries in case of a gallbladder problem.

Cholecystectomy

Cholecystectomy is a gallbladder removal surgery, which means that the doctor will remove the gallbladder completely. It can be done as open surgery; however, it is much more common for laparoscopic cholecystectomy to be performed. 

Several small cuts are made in the abdomen. A laparoscope will then be used to give the surgent a clear image of what is going on in the gallbladder. Then, the gallbladder is removed. This procedure will prevent gallbladder attacks and gallstones from forming again in the future.

Cholecystectomy is considered to be a routine procedure. Statistics show that each year, around 500,000 people in the U.S. alone have a cholecystectomy. Many of these patients have reported going home the very same day. 

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) is a procedure used in both diagnosing and treating different issues regarding the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, and pancreas. It uses a combination of an X-ray and an endoscope to provide a view of the chosen organ’s insides. Next, a dye is inserted through the scope that will show on the X-ray. 

Biliary endoscopic sphincterotomy (BES)

During the biliary endoscopic sphincterotomy (BES), the doctor makes a small cut in the common bile duct. Then, a balloon-type device is inserted into the bile duct. This helps to extract any present gallstones. The stones are then dropped into the small intestine. Later, the patient is able to quickly and easily pass the gallstones from the small intestine. The BES is a common practice used to eliminate the symptoms of choledocholithiasis. 

Recommended Diet for a Gallbladder Problem

In patients with gallbladder problems, a few diet adjustments may be required. 

Usually, doctors recommend to their patients to avoid certain foods that are known to aggravate the present symptoms. The list includes processed foods, unhealthy fats, refined sugars, etc. 

  • Fat intake: If you are struggling with gallstones, pay special attention to your fat intake. Researchers suggest that it is best to pursue a low-fat diet. Such a diet can assist with the gallstone treatment, but also prevent further growth. 

    Processed foods, fast food, whole-fat dairy products, red meat, butter, and lard are the greatest sources of saturated fats. Make an effort to minimalize your saturated and trans fat intake as much as possible. A low-fat diet is usually recommended to those awaiting gallstone surgery as well. This helps reduce the size and number of the gallstones, thus increasing the surgery’s success rate.

  • Whole foods: Instead, focus on eating more whole foods. When we say whole foods, we mean unprocessed, unrefined foods that are plant-based. Fruits, veggies, whole-grains, and plant-based protein sources are the ones to choose from. Fiber-rich foods, calcium-rich foods, and healthy fats sources are foods you should organize your meals around. 

  • Hydration: It is important to drink enough water. Caffeine is also supposed to help reduce the risk of many gallbladder issues, including gallstones. By following this regime, you can maintain a healthy weight. 

  • Weight: Being overweight or obese increases your risk of gallbladder issues and makes their symptoms more unbearable. One of the easiest ways to maintain a healthy weight is by exercising. We must mention that losing too much weight, too quickly actually increases one’s risk of gallstones. Fast weight loss causes your liver to create more cholesterol. This can easily lead to the formation of cholesterol gallstones. 

  • Exercise: Your risk of gallstones is also increased by being physically inactive. That is why it is important to keep moving. Choose from various physical activities such as walking, jogging, hiking, cycling, swimming, or even doing home workouts to help you treat your inflamed gallbladder and prevent another gallbladder attack in the near future.

The general idea is to aid the present symptoms and prevent such symptoms in the future by staying healthy.

There is a ton of scientific research done on the topic of healthy living by following a healthy diet and daily exercise. We highly recommend pursuing the same path that will help you reduce your risk of gallbladder problems and preserve your good health in general.

Conclusion

We have all heard about gallbladder stones, but do we actually know what they are? Gallbladder problems can cause a variety of symptoms and it is important to take notice and seek treatment. We hope that by the end of today’s article, you have learned a lot more about the gallbladder and all of the things that can go wrong with it.

Sources

  1. Stinton, L. M., & Shaffer, E. A. (2012). Epidemiology of Gallbladder Disease: Cholelithiasis and Cancer. Gut and Liver, 6(2), 172-187. doi:10.5009/gnl.2012.6.2.172
    Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3343155/
  2. Reshetnyak, V. I. (2012). Concept of the pathogenesis and treatment of cholelithiasis. World Journal of Hepatology, 4(2), 18. doi:10.4254/wjh.v4.i2.18
    Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3295849/
  3. Derici, H. (2006). Diagnosis and treatment of gallbladder perforation. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 12(48), 7832. doi:10.3748/wjg.v12.i48.7832
    Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4087551/

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