What Are Symptoms of Gallbladder Problems?
Pain in the upper right abdomen is just one indicator of a gallbladder issue. Here are other symptoms.
YOUR GALLBLADDER MAY seem like a mysterious part of your body. What does it do, anyway? Until you have gallbladder pain, you may not even consider it much.
The gallbladder is shaped like a pear. It’s located in the upper right corner of your abdomen, under your liver.
You can think of your gallbladder like a storage unit. When you eat fatty foods, your liver makes bile, which is a substance that helps the body break down fat. Bile is stored in the gallbladder and then released into the small intestine through our bile ducts (tubes that carry bile).
“Bile enables us to break down and absorb the fat in our diets. Without bile, we would have oily, fat-containing stool,” says Dr. Jesse P. Houghton, senior medical director of gastroenterology at Southern Ohio Medical Center Gastroenterology Associates in Portsmouth, Ohio.
Although the gallbladder has a purpose in our bodies (to store bile), we also can live without it if it needs to be removed.
Symptoms of Gallbladder Problems
With a gallbladder-related health problem, you may experience symptoms that include:
- Pain in the upper right side of your abdomen associated with eating fatty foods. This could mean any kind of fatty food, not only meat, butter or other well-known types of fatty foods. “These symptoms classically occur about a half hour after a fatty meal, last one to three hours and then gradually improve,” Houghton says. Another name for this symptom is biliary colic.
- Pain that radiates toward the back, shoulder blades or chest. “It’s not uncommon for people having chest pain to present (to the ER) and think it’s a cardiac problem, but it’s actually a gallbladder problem,” Eiferman says.
- Pain in the center of the abdomen.
- Fever and chills.
- Nausea after eating.
- Vomiting that happens after eating.
- Yellowing of the skin or the eyes.
There are a couple of health problems that can happen in the gallbladder and cause noticeable symptoms. These include:
- Gallstones. These are deposits of digestive fluid that have become hardened and formed stones. This is by far the most common gallbladder health problem, says Dr. Daniel Eiferman, an associate professor of surgery at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.
- Gallbladder inflammation, also called cholecystitis, is a problem that requires emergency care.
Other less common gallbladder problems include gallbladder cancer or a tearing of the gallbladder.
Some risk factors may make people more likely to have a gallbladder problem. These include:
- Being female.
- Being obese.
- Having a genetic risk factor for gallbladder problems.
- Being over age 40.
Diagnosing Gallbladder Problems
Health professionals most commonly diagnose gallbladder problems with an ultrasound scan. An ultrasound is a scan using painless sound waves to help obtain pictures inside the body. Your doctor will look for abnormalities in the ultrasound scan, such as small, white stone-like deposits for gallstones.
Another test that might be used is called a HIDA (hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid) scan. A HIDA scan uses nuclear medicine imaging to help pinpoint problems in the bile ducts, gallbladder and liver.
Of those who have gallstones, only 20% have pain severe enough to require medical attention, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. Some smaller stones may shift position in the body and be less painful or be passed through your stool. But most people experiencing symptoms from gallstones will continue to have occasional pain until the gallbladder is removed.
Treating Gallbladder Problems
You can live a completely normal life after your gallbladder is removed. Instead of having the gallbladder as a storage unit, your bile will typically go straight to your small intestine instead. Some patients experience looser stools, Bechtold says. This is because the bile no longer has a storage unit, so some of it may end up in the colon. He finds his patients are more willing to put up with that versus the pain they felt from gallstones.
Why Gallbladder Removal Surgery Can Cause Diarrhea – and How to Treat It.
Ursodiol, a medicine used in place of surgery, can help break down the gallstones. It’s used in patients who don’t want surgery or who are too weak to have surgery. It has to be used for at least a month to be effective but sometimes is used for up to two years or more.
However, most patients still ultimately need gallbladder removal surgery, Houghton says. Plus, most patients prefer having a one-time quick surgery versus using medication the rest of their lives, Eiferman says.
Another non-surgical option is a cholecystostomy, when a tube is placed to help drain out the gallbladder. This is usually only used in patients who are very sick and may have trouble with surgery, Eiferman says.
Inflammation of the gallbladder can lead to serious and sometimes fatal complications. One common cause of gallbladder inflammation is a gallstone that gets stuck in the bile ducts, the passage between the gallbladder and small intestine. Other causes include tumors or infection. The typical treatment is emergency gallbladder removal surgery.
Preventing Gallbladder Symptoms
It’s not always possible to prevent gallbladder problems such as gallstones. “It’s one of those things where it happens or it doesn’t,” Bechtold says.
However, there are some things you can do for better gallbladder health.
- Eat a healthy, high-fiber, low-fat diet.
- Maintain a healthy weight. If you have to lose weight, do it slowly (1 to 2 pounds a week is best, Houghton says).
- If you have diabetes, maintain good control of your blood sugar.
- If you have occasional gallbladder pain, avoid high-fat foods.
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