What is Gallbladder Disease?
Gallbladder disease is a group of conditions which affect the organ in different ways.
There are a number of medical issues which fall under this category, including: gallstones, cholecystitis and even gallbladder cancer. (1)
However, the most common culprit boils down to gallstones. In the US they affect around 10 to 15 percent of the population, which equates to almost 25 million people. (2)
The gallbladder is a tiny organ located just under the liver. It stores a fluid called bile which helps to digest and break down the fats in foods we eat as well as getting rid of the waste.
When we open our mouth to eat, it sparks off a chain reaction in the gallbladder to start releasing bile through what is called bile ducts. These tubes or canals transport the digestive fluid first from the liver to the gallbladder and then onto the small intestine.
The formation of gallstones is mainly down to cholesterol. Even in healthy people, cholesterol has a slight tendency to crystallize. Another element which gets added to bile is called bilirubin, this substance can also build up tiny stones. (3)
Inside the gallbladder, gallstones can form in different shapes and sizes, some may be as small as a grain of sand, while others can be the size of a golf ball.
These stones can sometimes block the bile ducts and if they don’t move it can cause bile to build up which can result in a gallbladder attack.
Cholecystitis is a knock on effect of gallstones and blockages, it’s where the gallbladder becomes inflamed or swollen as a result. (4)
Symptoms can include:
When the gallstones block the bile ducts, the initial response of the body is a sudden sharp abdominal pain, this is called biliary colic. (5)
This sharp pain can last hours, yet for some people it will only last a few minutes. It can begin at anytime, during the day or night, although sometimes it can be triggered by eating greasy foods.
It’s a constant pain which isn’t relieved by either vomiting or going to the toilet and is most often felt in the centre of the stomach or on the right hand side, just under the ribs. This pain may even spread to the side or shoulder blade.
Fortunately biliary colic is not an everyday event, and for some it can take months before another episode takes place. However, if gallstones do cause these episodes, it is classified as “uncomplicated gallstone disease”. (6)
Nausea and Vomiting
During a biliary colic episode, people can feel nauseous or even vomit due to the pain, it can even cause excessive sweating. (7)
That said, if they also present with severe sudden abdominal pain, it could be a red flag sign of a gallbladder attack and should be checked by a doctor immediately. (8)
In the case of a cholecystitis, a high temperature will manifest. This is often the case in situations where the body tries to fight of infection or inflammation (swelling).
The fever can also result in chills as it calms down again. (9)
Jaundice is a condition which gives your skin or the whites of your eyes a yellow hue. It occurs when there’s too much bilirubin in the blood.
There are different factors that can trigger jaundice such as: liver malfunction, cholecystitis, gallstones, medication, infections or blocked bile ducts. (10,11)
Color Change of Urine and Stool
A color change of either the urine or stool or even both could be an indicator of a problem in the liver. (12,13)
When too much bilirubin is left in the urine, it can cause it to turn clear brown and could be best described as “tea colored”.
If the stool is light colored it could be an indicator of a blocked bile duct. This causes a buildup of bile chemicals and potentially means the stool isn’t getting its typical brown color from the digestive fluid.
Gallbladder disease is very common among adults around the world. As we previously established, it’s predominantly instigated by gallstones. (14)
There are three stages of gallbladder disease which starts from the formation of gallstones to a gallbladder attack. (15)
Gallstones don’t always advance into gallbladder disease, therefore even if you have developed stones, it doesn’t mean you will progress through all of the stages detailed here.
During the first stage, the formation of gallstones take place.
Indication points towards people who develop gallstones have a more unreliable bile production than others. Activity within the gallbladder is very sluggish, which makes it easier for the substances to crystalize, hence the formation of gallstones. (16)
The majority of gallstones in their infancy typically don’t cause symptoms, which means many people won’t progress further.
However, if a gallstone blocks a bile duct for a prolonged period it can lead to the next stage.
This is the stage in which gallbladder disease is diagnosed.
Its when the gallstone blocks a bile duct. By now it’s causing symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea and nausea. Some people may also feel like frequently burping or belching.
The pain can last for hours, but eventually should subside. However, if the pain persists for more than a period of eight hours medical attention should be sought. (17)
This stage is characterised by a gallbladder attack. This occurs when a gallstone has blocked a bile duct for such a lengthy period of time, it results in the gallbladder becoming inflamed.
When the inflammation occurs symptoms can include: intense pain in the abdomen, fever and chills, nausea or loss of appetite.
This stage should be treated immediately as it can lead to further complications.
There are various options for the treatment of gallbladder disease. The most common of which is surgery. This can either be surgical drainage of the gallbladder or complete removal of the organ. (18)
The gallbladder is somewhat of a mystery organ. In the same way you can live without your appendix, if your gallbladder has to be removed, your body can still function well without that too. (19)
Surgery to remove the gallbladder is called cholecystectomy of which there are two different types: Laparoscopic or open.
During a laparoscopic procedure a small camera (laparoscope) is inserted into the gallbladder to guide the cut and complete the operation. Recovery with this method is normally much faster.
Open surgery is performed in the conventional manner. This is where a larger incision is made in order to remove the gallbladder. You will find your stay in hospital will be longer, potentially up to a week. (20)
If the patient is unfit for surgery, other treatments can be used to disperse the gallstone before they cause harm. (21)
These include, an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), a treatment to help remove gallstones stuck in the bile ducts. Others include oral dissolution therapy, this process uses medication to breakdown the gallstones.
Shock wave lithotripsy is when doctors use shock waves to break the gallstones into smaller pieces, however this procedure is now very rare. (22)
What is gallbladder disease? Gallbladder disease is a number of conditions affecting the gallbladder.
What are the signs of gallbladder disease? Signs can include: sudden severe abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, fever, jaundice and changes of color in the urine or stool.
How do you develop gallbladder disease? This condition is caused by gallstones which are made by substances found in the gallbladder. They can block the bile ducts, thus triggering inflammation and further complications.
How are you diagnosed for gallbladder disease? Doctors will diagnose the condition using different tests and scans, such as: ultrasound, a CT or CAT scan, x-rays, or an MRI scan. Your doctor could also request a blood test to identify any infection. (23)
What is the best treatment of gallbladder disease? It depends on how severe your symptoms are. Some people may find that medication is sufficient to disperse gallstones, whereas other people might need to have surgery for removal of the gallbladder.
What are the long term complications of gallbladder disease? People who have gallbladder disease are at higher risk of gallbladder cancer, it’s a rare complication but it can occur. Others include: inflamed gallbladder (cholecystitis), a damaged gallbladder, bile ducts or liver and inflammation of the pancreas due to gallstone blockage. (24,25)
Is gallbladder disease considered a disability? No gallbladder disease does not cause any physical or mental disabilities.
Is there any cure for gallbladder disease? Yes, by removing the gallbladder a person can no longer develop severe symptoms. (26)
Is gallbladder disease life threatening? Gallbladder disease comes with complications of which some can be fatal. Blocked bile ducts can also be fatal if they are left untreated. (27)
Gallbladder disease are a number of conditions affecting the gallbladder.
The most common is gallstones. These are formed from the substances found in the bile. Generally these stones are not considered harmful when small in size, yet when they block a bile duct or grow too big they can cause complications.
Fortunately the gallbladder is an organ which can be removed and people have shown to live long healthy lives without it. (28)