What is the gallbladder?
The gallbladder is a four-inch, pear-shaped organ situated below your liver. It acts as a storage organ for bile, which is 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 and into the small intestine.
It is an organ that does not get much attention. You will only recognize the gallbladder if it causes pain and problems. 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 common gallbladder problems:
1. Gallstones (Cholelithiasis)
When small, big, and hard substances called gallstones form inside the gallbladder, lots of problems can arise.
Although a huge percentage of people with gallstones will never experience any signs, a few may have a biliary colic symptom, which is intense pain. For many years, the signs and symptoms of gallstones have already manifested. It has been proven that people who have lived with gallstones for more than ten years without any issues are less probably going to see any signs.
2. Biliary Colic
Biliary colic is the term 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 reoccur over time, mostly years apart.
3. Cholecystitis (Gallbladder Inflammation)
The most known cause of an inflamed gallbladder is gallstones. However, cholecystitis can also be caused by infections or the excessive consumption of alcohol. This condition 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 a surgical emergency. Medical help should be taken if the patient has a fever.
4. Chronic Gallbladder Disease
Repeated series of inflammation in the gallstones can cause chronic gallbladder disease, making the gallbladder scarred and rigid. Some of the symptoms of a chronic gallbladder disease include indigestion, abdominal fullness, increased gas, and diarrhea. Chronic diarrhea up to 10 times a day is a common symptom of the disease.
Signs and Symptoms of Gallstones
It is quite normal for gallstones not to cause any signs or symptoms. Symptoms may only manifest if a gallstone causes blockage in a duct. One of the symptoms includes an intense pain on the upper side of the belly or abdominal region. The pain is usually characterized by the following:
- Occurs promptly at the epigastric area and tends to extend toward the shoulder or back making you feel quite uncomfortable.
- Hinders you from breathing normally, which lasts for 15 minutes to 24 hours.
- Happens after meals.
Oftentimes, gallstones that do not block the cystic duct do not have any symptoms. They are usually discovered when patients are screened (chest X-ray or CT scan) for other medical conditions or during an abdominal surgery. The formation of gallstones requires immediate attention so that the process of digestion is carried out smoothly.
Although cancer of the gallbladder is a rare case, it is a very serious health problem. People who have gallstones or have suffered from gallstones before are more susceptible to develop gallbladder cancer. A large number of gallbladder cancer patients have developed gallstones in their life.
Gallbladder cancer 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 this type of cancer in the early stages, most of the time, cancer tends to spread beyond the gallbladder. The signs and symptoms of gallbladder cancer can be compared to those of chronic gallstone disease as they are similar. They include:
- Pain in the abdomen
- Body temperature of 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and above
- Jaundice (eyes and skin turn yellow)
The presence of gallstones is a significant risk factor that a person might develop gallstone cancer. One in three people having gallbladder cancer also has gallstones. However, not all who have gallstones will develop gallbladder cancer.
The recommended treatment for gallbladder cancer is a combination of radiotherapy, surgery, and chemotherapy.
Adenocarcinoma is a type of gallbladder cancer that begins from the lining of the digestive tract, which includes the gallbladder. Other types of gallbladder cancer are:
- Squamous cell carcinoma
- Adenosquamous carcinoma
- Small cell carcinoma
- Neuroendocrine gallbladder tumors
- Gallbladder lymphoma
Different surgical methods are used to treat gallbladder diseases. The following are a few recommended surgeries for gallbladder treatment:
- Cholecystectomy - In this procedure, the gallbladder is completely removed as one does not need it for food digestion. Laparoscopic or open cholecystectomy technique can be performed.
- Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) - This procedure is done when the gallstones have moved out of the gallbladder and into the bile duct. An endoscope is inserted through the mouth and down the throat until it reaches the gallbladder to remove the gallstones. ERCP and gallbladder removal are usually performed together.
- Cholecystostomy (Gallbladder Draining) - In this minimally invasive procedure, a needle is inserted into the abdomen to drain the gallbladder and decompress 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.
For non-surgical options, methods like lithotripsy can be done. This procedure 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.
When to See a Doctor
Don’t hesitate to see your doctor if the signs and symptoms of gallbladder disease persist. The common signs and symptoms include:
- High fever
- Uncomfortable and intense abdominal pain
- The skin and white of the eyes turn yellow