Healthy Living

An Overview of Gallbladder Diseases


Key Takeaways

  • Common gallbladder problems
  • Signs and symptoms of gallstones
  • Cancer of the gallbladder
  • Treatment for gallbladder disorders

What is the gallbladder?

About 4 inch and pear-shaped, the gallbladder is an organ located below your liver. It acts as a storage organ for bile, a mixture of fats, cholesterol, and fluids. The main purpose of bile is to help in breaking down fats during digestion. The whole process allows for easy absorption of nutrients and vitamins into the bloodstream. Gallbladder releases bile through the cystic duct into the small intestine.

You will only attend to the gallbladder if it causes pain and problems. It’s an organ that doesn’t get much attention. 

Usually, the gallbladder doesn’t bring about any concern or serious issues. However, there can be many problems if the flow of bile is blocked or interfered with.

Common Gallbladder Problems

Below are some gallbladder problems that are common:

 -    Gallstones (cholelithiasis)

When small hard substances, known as gallstones, or sometimes bigger ones form inside the gallbladder, lots of problems can arise.  

Though a huge percentage of people with gallstones will never experience any signs, a few may have a biliary colic symptom - intense pain. For many years, gallstones’ signs and symptoms have manifested. It’s been proved that people who have lived with gallstones for more than ten years without any issues are less probably going to see any signs.

-    Biliary colic

Biliary colic is a name used for painful episodes observed as a result of gallstones. When the cystic duct is blocked, you will feel severe pain as a result of contractions of the gallbladder.  The intense pain normally lasts for one or two hours at most. The pain may reappear over time, mostly years apart.

-    Cholecystitis (Inflamed gallbladder)

The most known cause of inflamed gallbladder is gallstones. However, cholecystitis can also be caused by infections or excessive consumption of alcohol. This occurs when there is a reaction between the body and the gallstones which result in painful and swollen gallbladder walls.

Rarely the inflamed gallbladder is infected by intestinal bacteria and ruptures, leading to surgical emergency. Medical help should be taken if the patient is suffering from fever.

-    Chronic gallbladder disease

Repeated series of inflammation in the gallstones can cause chronic gallbladder disease, making it scarred and rigid. Some of the symptoms of this problem include indigestion, abdominal fullness, increased gas, and diarrhea. Chronic diarrhea - up to 10 times a day - is a common symptom for the disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Gallstones

It’s quite normal for gallstones not to cause any symptoms or signs. Symptoms may only manifest if a gallstone causes blockage in a duct. This includes:

-    Intense pain on the upper side of the belly or in the stomach/abdomen region. 

The pain may:

    • Occur promptly at the epigastric area and extend towards the shoulder or back making you feel so uncomfortable
    • Hinder you from breathing normally and last 15 min to 24 hours
    • Mostly happens after meals.

Often gallstones that do not block the cystic duct do not have any symptoms. They are discovered during X-ray or CT scan from some other condition or whilst abdominal surgery. Gallbladder requires immediate attention so that the functions of digestion are carried out smoothly.

Cancer of the gallbladder

A rare case but a very serious problem, cancer of the gallbladder is one of the complications of the gallbladder. People who are suffering or have suffered from gallstones before are prompt to develop gallbladder cancer. A large number of victims of this type of cancer have contracted gallstones in their life.  Gallbladder cancer is cancer of the bile tract and is more common in women and people above the age of 60. Nevertheless, this is not something to worry about as the chance of developing gallbladder cancer is less than one in ten thousand.

As it is rare to diagnose the cancer in early stages, most of the time the cancer spreads beyond gallbladder. The signs of gallbladder cancer can be compared to those of chronic gallstone disease as they are similar. They include:

    • Pain in the abdomen
    • Fever of 38C (100.4F) or above
    • The eyes and skin turn yellow (jaundice)
    • Gallstone is the biggest indicator that a person might develop gallstone cancer. One in three people having gallbladder cancer also has gallstone.

But not all having gallstone will develop gallbladder cancer.

The recommended treatment for gallbladder cancer is a combination of radiotherapy, surgery, and chemotherapy.

Gallbladder Adenocarcinoma

Adenocarcinoma is a type of gallbladder cancer that begins from the lining of the digestive tract and includes gallbladder. Other types of gallbladder are squamous cell carcinomas, adenosquamous carcinomas, small-cell carcinomas, neuroendocrine gallbladder tumors and sarcoma gallbladder cancer and gallbladder lymphoma.


Different surgical methods are used to treat gallbladder diseases. Here are a few recommended surgeries for the treatment:

•    Cholecystectomy: In this process, the gallbladder is removed completely as one does not need it for digestion of the food. Laparoscopic or open cholecystectomy technique can be used.

•    Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): When the gallstones have moved out of the gallbladder into the bile duct, this procedure is adopted. An instrument is inserted through the endoscope to remove the gallstones. ERCP and gallbladder removal are performed together.

•    Gallbladder Draining (Cholecystostomy): In this minimally invasive procedure, a needle is inserted into the abdomen to drain bile of the gallbladder and decompresses it. The gallstones are still present in the gallbladder and can be removed later.

Patients with severe gallbladder problems and those who cannot be treated with other methods are treated with it. This method is not very common.

A Non-Surgical Option: Methods like lithotripsy can be done. This uses high-energy sound waves to break the gallstone into pieces that can be drained out. It is mostly used for kidney stones but it can be used for gallstones as well.

Do you need to see a doctor?

Don’t hesitate to see your doctor if signs and symptoms persist. These signs and symptoms include:

  • High fever
  • Intense abdominal pain that makes you uncomfortable
  • The eyes become white and your skin turns yellow