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Gallbladder Disease

Gallbladder disease is a term that encompasses various conditions affecting the gallbladder, a small, pear-shaped organ in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen, beneath the liver. The gallbladder stores bile produced by the liver and passes it along through a duct into the small intestine. The small intestine secretes a hormone called cholecystokinin, to aid in the digestion of fats.

Gallbladder Disease Types and Causes

There are different types of gallbladder disease, each with different causes. Some of the more common types include:

  • Gallstones – A common gallbladder disorder is gallstones, tiny stones that form from hardened bile and cholesterol or bilirubin (a yellow substance that the body creates when it replaces old red blood cells) in the gallbladder. While gallstones can go undetected for years, they can eventually cause problems. As they grow in size, they can block the exit from the gallbladder, called the cystic duct, blocking the flow of bile from the gallbladder to the small intestine (cholestasis). When this happens, the gallbladder spasms and becomes inflamed (cholecystitis).
    Gallstones can be caused by a number of factors, including too much cholesterol or bilirubin in the bile, or not enough of a substance called bile salts. They can also be caused by a non-stone related blockage in the gallbladder preventing proper emptying.
  • Cholestasis –Any condition in which the flow of bile from the liver stops or slows. Cholestasis can be caused by disorders of the liver, bile duct or pancreas.
  • Cholecystitis – Inflammation of the gallbladder, which can be either short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). An episode of cholecystitis may resolve on its own, or it may progress to a more serious condition involving bacterial infection of the inflamed gallbladder. Chronic inflammation, which can eventually cause damage to the gallbladder, is typically the result of repeat cholecystitis attacks.
  • Gallbladder cancer – Although not as common as the other types, gallbladder cancer develops in the gallbladder.

Gallbladder Risk Factors

Factors that can increase the risk of developing gallbladder disease include:

  • A family history of gallstones
  • Age 60+
  • Female
  • Cholesterol medication
  • Diabetes
  • Rapid, significant weight loss
  • Birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
  • Crohn’s disease and other conditions that affect nutrient absorption
  • Pregnancy
  • Obesity
  • A high-fat, high-cholesterol, low-fiber diet

Symptoms of Gallbladder Disease

Symptoms of gallbladder conditions include:

  • No symptoms (gallstones may be detected while being tested for another condition)
  • Pain or tenderness in the upper right abdomen, particularly after ingesting fatty, heavy or greasy foods
  • Pain between the shoulder blades
  • Indigestion after eating, especially after consuming fatty or greasy foods
  • Feeling of fullness or of food not digesting
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Bloating or gas
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Fever or chills (might indicate infection)
  • Dizziness
  • Light or chalky colored, or fatty, foul-smelling stools
  • Dark urine
  • Skin itching
  • Jaundice

Diagnosing Gallbladder Disease

If you are experiencing symptoms of gallbladder disease, your doctor will take your medical history, perform a physical exam, and may order diagnostic lab and imaging tests, such as an abdominal ultrasound or a computerized tomography (CT) scan. Lab work might include blood tests, to detect signs of infection or inflammation of the bile ducts, gallbladder, pancreas or liver.

If the cause appears to be blockage of the bile ducts, your doctor may order additional tests, to gain more precise images of the ducts, which may include:

  • Hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid (HIDA) scan – An imaging procedure that helps your doctor track the production and flow of bile from your liver to your small intestine
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) – Procedure to both detect and remove gallstones

Treatment for Gallbladder Disease

Treatment varies, based on the condition. If you are experiencing a gallbladder attack or other symptoms, you need to have your gallstones treated right away, most likely with surgery to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy), a minimally invasive procedure performed laparoscopically. Your gallbladder is not an essential organ; your body can digest food without the gallbladder.

Preventing Gallbladder Disease

You can lower your risk of gallstones by maintaining a healthy weight through proper diet and nutrition.

Getting Help

The skilled, board-certified general surgeons affiliated with Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center routinely treat patients with mild and severe cases of gallbladder disease, performing over 600 surgeries for the treatment of gallbladder disease every year.

To schedule an appointment with a physician affiliated with Memorial Hermann, click here or call 713-222-CARE (2273).