Definition and Overview

Gallbladder problems are issues or symptoms that affect the gallbladder, which is the small pear-shaped organ located just under the liver. All problems with this organ are automatically considered as a disease.

The gallbladder is responsible for storing and delivering bile, which is composed of fat, cholesterol, and bodily fluids, and is used by the small intestine to break down fat from digested food, enabling the body to get the important vitamins and minerals. Any problems affecting the organ can hinder its function and reduce the body’s ability to absorb fat-soluble nutrients. Thus, all problems affecting this 4-inch organ should be treated promptly.

Cause of Condition

Gallbladder problems present in many forms, but most of them can be linked to gallstones.

Gallstones are the most common issue that affects the organ. Abnormal lumps may sometimes form inside the gallbladder due to the accumulation of cholesterol or calcium deposits that eventually harden and form a stone, either inside the organ itself or along the bile duct, which is the channel connecting the gallbladder and the small intestine. They can range in size from a few to several millimeters wide, and may sometimes form in groups. They also tend to continuously grow in size when left untreated, raising the risk of a blockage.

People who have gallstones face a greater risk of experiencing other gallbladder problems such as:

  • Cholecystitis or the inflammation of the gallbladder – The gallbladder can become inflamed. This condition sometimes occurs only temporarily, but it can also become chronic, in which case the patient faces a risk of organ damage.

  • Ileus – An ileus is a condition characterized by a gallstone traveling into the intestine. Although quite rare, this is a potentially life-threatening condition.

  • Empyema – An empyema is a condition wherein an abscess begins to form from an infected gallbladder. Pus, which is made up of white blood cells and bacteria, tend to cause abdominal pain.

  • Gallbladder perforation – Gallstones may sometimes cause a perforation of the gallbladder, usually due to the lack of treatment. This is a severe condition that may threaten the patient’s life due to the possibility of a widespread infection in the abdominal area.

Some problems may also affect the gallbladder even without a gallstone. These include:

  • Polyps or non-cancerous growths
  • Cancer or malignant tumors
  • Porcelain gallbladder, which is caused by the accumulation of calcium in the walls of the organ, causing them to harden

Key Symptoms

Diseases affecting the gallbladder are often diagnosed only when symptoms begin to manifest. The most common symptoms linked with gallbladder issues include:

  • Pain – Pain stemming from the gallbladder is felt in the middle to upper right portion of the abdomen. It can present either mildly or more severely, as well as intermittently or frequently. It tends to feel worse when a person consumes fatty foods. In more serious cases, the pain may radiate towards the back or upwards, affecting even the chest.
  • Fever – A telltale sign that the body is fighting off an infection, a fever accompanied with abdominal pain in the gallbladder area should not be ignored. It is crucial that an infection be treated as early as possible as it can spread to other parts of the body.
  • Chills – Chills usually accompany a fever caused by an infection.
  • Jaundice – Jaundice may indicate the presence of a stone or a blockage in the bile duct.
  • Excessive sweating
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark urine
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Itchy skin

The following are symptoms associated with chronic or complicated gallbladder disease:

  • Nausea
  • Acid reflux
  • Vomiting
  • Gas
  • Chronic diarrhea – A bout of diarrhea is considered chronic if it causes a person to have more than four loose bowel movements in a day continuously for at least 90 days.

In some cases, however, problems such as gallstones may develop for years without getting diagnosed.

Who to See And Types of Treatments Available

If a person is experiencing abdominal pain, regardless of the exact location, either recurrently, severely, or for a prolonged period, and the pain does not go away when he has a bowel movement, or changes his position, it is best to consult a general physician or family doctor. Abdominal pain is a symptom not only of gallbladder problems but other possible health issues that may require treatment.

If the pain is accompanied by other symptoms of gallbladder disease, the condition should be brought to the attention of a medical professional for diagnosis and treatment. This will prevent any problems, such as infection or blockage, from causing serious threat to life.

If a person has a gallstone, or thinks he might have other gallbladder problems, and he experiences a combination of jaundice, fever, chills, and intense abdominal pain that cannot be relieved with any position or activity for more than eight hours, he should see a doctor immediately.

Gallbladder diseases can be treated with:

  • Antibiotics – Antibiotics are prescribed when there is an infection or inflammation in the organ. These, however, do not treat the underlying cause, such as a gallstone, but plays a crucial role in preventing the spread of the infection.

  • Surgery – Surgery of the gallbladder, which is called cholecystectomy, is done to remove a cancerous tumor or a troublesome stone, polyp, or blockage.

  • Chemotherapy or radiation therapy – In order to make sure cancer does not return after a malignant tumor has been surgically removed, patients are advised to undergo either chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

  • Ursodeoxycholic acid – People with severe gallbladder issues but are not eligible for surgery may try to shrink gallstones and relieve symptoms by taking ursodeoxycholic acid medications orally.

  • Solvent dissolution – This is a less commonly used technique to dissolve gallstones, which is done by injecting chemicals into the gallbladder.

  • Extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy – A more modern technique for getting rid of gallstones, this method breaks up stones using high-energy shockwaves projected from a machine. This, however, is only effective when only a few small gallstones are involved.

Surgery of the gallbladder is now also done either through the conventional method or laparoscopy, also known as keyhole surgery. This is a type of surgery wherein only small incisions are made and a catheter is inserted through them. This is a more improved surgical method compared to laparotomy, or a conventional surgery that requires large incisions. Laparoscopic surgery is now more widely used, as long as the conditions allow, to reduce the patient’s pain and discomfort and to shorten the recovery downtime after the procedure.

References:

  • National Institutes of Health
  • National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
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