Your gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ beneath the liver that stores bile produced by the liver and passes it along through a duct into the small intestine. The small intestine then secretes a hormone called cholecystokinin to aid in the digestion of fats.
The gallbladder can be affected by a number of diseases – ranging from a blockage of the bile duct to gallbladder cancer. Surgical removal of the gallbladder is one of the most effective methods for treating gallbladder disease.
A common gallbladder disorder, gallstones are tiny masses that form from hardened bile and cholesterol or bilirubin (a yellow substance that the body creates when it replaces old red blood cells). While gallstones may go undetected for years, they can eventually cause problems.
As they grow in size, gallstones can block the exit from the gallbladder – called the cystic duct – and prevent the flow of bile from the gallbladder to the small intestine (cholestasis). When this occurs, the gallbladder will spasm and become inflamed (cholecystitis).
Gallstones can be caused by a number of factors, including having too much cholesterol or bilirubin in the bile, or not enough of a substance called bile salts. They can also be caused by any non-stone related blockage that prevents proper emptying of the gallbladder.
In some cases, little to no symptoms of certain types of gallbladder disease (such as gallstones) may occur. However, there are some common signs and symptoms of gallbladder disease to look out for, including:
While gallbladder disease can affect anyone, certain factors may increase your risk of developing gallbladder disease, including:
While certain gallbladder conditions occur suddenly and are difficult to avoid, you can lower your risk of gallstones and other complications by maintaining a healthy weight through proper diet, nutrition and exercise.
If gallbladder disease goes undetected or untreated, serious complications can occur, including:
If your doctor suspects gallbladder disease, he or she will likely review your medical history, perform a physical exam and possibly order diagnostic lab and imaging tests such as an abdominal ultrasound or computerized tomography (CT) scan. Additional lab work may include a blood test to detect signs of infection or inflammation of the bile ducts, gallbladder, pancreas or liver.
If the cause of your symptoms appears to be blockage of the bile ducts, your doctor will likely order certain specialized tests to gain more precise images of the ducts, including:
Treatment for gallbladder disease varies based on each patient’s specific condition.
If you have gallstones that don't cause any symptoms, you likely won’t need treatment. But if you are experiencing symptoms that could be related to gallstones, you should see a physician right away. Surgery to remove your gallbladder – called a cholecystectomy – is a common treatment for this condition . Fortunately, your gallbladder is not an essential organ, and your body can digest food without it.
If your physician recommends removal of your gallbladder, there are new surgical techniques that may shorten recovery times. Most gallbladder removal surgeries are performed laparoscopically. Using this minimally invasive technique, your surgeon will make a few small incisions in your abdomen and insert a tiny camera called a laparoscope to view inside your body while removing your gallbladder.
Unlike a traditional “open” cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal), patients who undergo laparoscopic cholecystectomy are often able to leave the hospital the same day. It is the preferred procedure for both our surgeons and patients as it often results in fewer complications, smaller scars and a shorter recovery time of one to two weeks.
For a full list of the minimally invasive surgical procedures we provide, visit our Robotic and Minimally Invasive Procedures page.
The skilled, board-certified general surgeons affiliated with Memorial Hermann routinely treat patients with mild to severe cases of gallbladder disease, performing over 600 surgeries every year.
While gallbladder disease may not initially be a life-threatening condition, you can develop serious complications if the gallbladder is not removed promptly and becomes infected. If you (or a loved one) are exhibiting symptoms of gallbladder disease, talk with your doctor.
If you are experiencing acute abdominal pain, seek immediate emergency medical attention by calling 911 or visiting a local Emergency Room.