The gallbladder is one of the few organs in the body that are not necessary for life or even for health but are good to have. It is a pear-shaped pouch that’s located on the underside of a person’s liver. It is able to contain one and a half ounces of bile, which is a thick, greenish fluid that helps the body break down fats. The stem of the gallbladder, or the neck is connected to the cystic duct, which in turn enters the liver’s hepatic duct. These two ducts form the common bile duct. As a person digests their food, the liver secretes bile, which then flows through the hepatic duct into the common bile duct. The bile empties into the first section of the small intestine or the last section of the stomach called the duodenum. When the person isn't eating, the bile doesn’t stop flowing. It will flow from the liver into what’s known as the common bile duct. In this situation, the sphincter of Oddi keeps it out of the duodenum. Because of this, the bile backs up into the gallbladder, where it’s kept until it is needed.
Conditions that cause problems with the gallbladder are unfortunately common. Most of these conditions or diseases block the bile duct or the cystic duct. When bile can’t flow out of the gallbladder, it becomes concentrated and sometimes forms gallstones. These are sometimes very painful as they try to pass out of the gallbladder. There are two main types of gallstones. Most are made out of cholesterol, while the rest are made out of the calcium salts of bile pigments and other materials. They can be so tiny they are hard to see with the naked eye or they can take up most of the space of the gallbladder. Most gallstones are about an inch long. In many cases, the gallstones are asymptomatic, or silent especially when they first form. As time goes on, the chances of gallstones causing symptoms increase. Some gallstones are big enough to block the ducts, which will cause the gallbladder to become inflamed. Sometimes an inflamed gallbladder needs to be removed surgically.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Who is at risk for getting gallstones?
A: Anyone can develop gallstones, but women are at much higher risk than men. Women who are overweight; have been pregnant; have taken oral contraceptives or hormone therapy; have lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time and are Native American are at higher risk than the rest of the population. Doctors don’t really know why some people get gallstones, and others don’t.
Q: What are other gall bladder disorders?
A: Gall bladder disorders besides gallstones include:
- Acute inflammation, or acute cholecystitis of the gallbladder
- Chronic inflammation, or chronic cholecystitis of the gallbladder
- Infection of the bile ducts, or acute cholangitis - A complication of this disorder is pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas. If the disease is not treated, it can lead to liver damage.
Q: What are symptoms of gallstones?
A: Symptoms of gallstones include:
- A severe and unremitting pain in the upper part of the abdomen. This pain can radiate to the chest, the back or the shoulders. Sometimes, it is mistaken for a heart attack.
- Severe pain and tenderness in the right side of the abdomen
- Nausea and vomiting
- Jaundice, chills and fever when the gallstones block the bile ducts
Q: How can gall bladder diseases be treated?
A: Many patients who have gallstones or other gallbladder diseases have their gallbladder removed. This surgery is called a cholecystectomy. It is very common and can be done laparoscopically. This means the surgeon makes tiny incisions in the patient’s abdomen for the insertion of small surgical tools and a tube with a camera at the end that is attached to a monitor. This surgery reduces blood loss, the chance of infection and other complications and is easier to recover from than an open surgery.