The gallbladder is an organ that is part of the human biliary system, which is involved with the production, storage and transportation of bile. Bile is a yellowish-brown fluid produced by the liver and used to break up and digest fatty foods in the small intestine.
Diseases of the gallbladder are common and costly. The best screening method to accurately determine point prevalence of gallstone disease is ultrasonography. Many risk factors for gallbladder disease are not modifiable such as ethnic background, increasing age, female gender and family history or genetics. Conversely, the modifiable risks for gallbladder disease are obesity, rapid weight loss and a sedentary lifestyle.
The rising epidemic of obesity and the metabolic syndrome predicts an escalation of disease of the gallbladder. In the United States, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of adults have gallstone disease. About a million new cases are diagnosed each year, and some 800,000 operations are performed to treat gallstones, making gallstone disease the most common gastrointestinal disorder requiring hospitalization.
The medical cost of gallstones in the United States is estimated to be about $5 billion yearly. The primary therapy for gallstones that are causing pain, inflammation, or infection is removal of the gallbladder.
What Does the Gallbladder Do?
The liver produces bile, which flows directly into your small intestine during meals. But between meals, most bile travels instead to the gallbladder, where it is stored until needed.
When you eat fatty foods, your gallbladder releases bile into the small intestine, where it’s mixed with partially digested food.
A gallbladder typically holds between 30 and 80 milliliters (1 to 2.7 fluid ounces) of bile.
Bile consists of water mixed with bile salts — which help break down large globules of fat — as well as cholesterol and certain fats and pigments.
The gallbladder is not absolutely necessary for human survival, as bile can reach the small intestine in other ways.
Where Is the Gallbladder?
The gallbladder is located in the right upper quadrant of your abdomen, right below the liver.
The gallbladder is attached to the liver, nestled within an indentation. It’s typically 7 to 10 centimeters (2.7 to 3.9 inches) long, and it’s oblong or pear-shaped.
Diet for a healthy gallbladder
Maintaining a healthy diet and weight go a long way in keeping the gallbladder healthy. You should eat a well-balanced diet with fruits, veggies, lean meats and fiber. According to New Health Guide, foods that are particularly good for the gallbladder are:
Fresh, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables: Some great ones are avocados, cranberries, berries, grapes, cucumbers and beets. Broccoli, bell peppers and oranges are high in fiber and vitamin C, which if lacking can contribute to gallstones. Pectin-rich fruits — such as apples, strawberries and citrus — can also help, according to RawPeople.com. Radishes are a terrific option because they increase bile flow, but those already suffering from gallbladder problems shouldn’t eat too many of them.
Lean meat, fish and poultry: The least fatty cuts are loins or “rounds,” according to New Health Guide. Any type of fish, pork, lamb and skinless chicken are also good choices.
Whole grains: These include oats, bran cereal and brown rice. Try breads and cereals that contain various whole grains and high amounts of fiber.
Low-fat dairy: Pay attention to the fat content in any type of dairy food.
Caffeinated coffee and alcohol: Studies have actually shown that moderate amounts (typically two drinks per day) of alcohol or caffeine from coffee may reduce the risk of gallstones. Caffeine from sources other than coffee, such as tea and soda, has not been shown to have a beneficial effect.
Plenty of water: RawPeople.com advises this one, pointing out that hydration is essential for maintaining the proper amount of water in the bile.
Nuts: The jury is still out on nuts. According to Everyday Health, some studies have shown that eating peanuts or tree nuts such as almonds and walnuts can help prevent gallstones, but it is important not to eat too many because nuts are high in fat.
Keeping away from certain foods can help, too. According to New Health Guide, some other foods to steer clear of are:
Sweeteners, sugar, and refined carbohydrates: This includes high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugars, like those found in cookies, soda and snack foods.
Frozen or canned fruits and vegetables: They may have additives that make it harder for the gallbladder to do its work.
White flour foods: This includes white bread, pasta and many desserts.
Processed snacks: Potato chips, cookies, pies — almost any packaged snack are bad for your body.
High-fat foods: Fried food, fatty cuts of meat, whole-milk dairy products and foods that are highly processed should be avoided.
Very low-calorie diets: This generally means eating less than 1,000 calories a day. These diets can increase gallstone formation.
Some problems associated with the gallbladder are gallstones, gallbladder attack and gallbladder disease. Gallbladder pain is usually caused by biliary colic, gallstones, cholecystitis, pancreatitis and cholangitis.
By far the most common gallbladder problem is gallstones — tiny stones that form from hardened bile and cholesterol. Gallstones can block the release of bile from the gallbladder and cause:
- Severe pain, particularly after a large meal or fatty foods
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- Fever and chills
- Other gallbladder problems are extremely rare, and include:
- Perforation (tearing or rupture) of the gallbladder
- Gangrene, if adequate blood flow to the gallbladder is blocked
- Pancreatitis, when gallstones migrate out of the gallbladder and then prevent pancreatic enzymes from traveling to the small intestine
- Bowel obstruction, caused by a gallstone passing into and then blocking a section of the intestines
- Gallstones may never cause any pain at all and may be discovered by chance on an imaging scan performed for unrelated reasons. In this case, no further evaluation or treatment is necessary.
Symptoms of a Gallbladder Problem
If you have gallstones or another problem with your gallbladder, you may develop abdominal pain that ranges from mild to excruciating and from rare to nearly constant.
You may also develop indigestion and other digestive upset, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, chest pain, dark urine, or clay-colored stools.
While gallstones are the most frequent cause of gallbladder symptoms, it’s possible for your bile ducts — which deliver bile from your gallbladder and liver to your small intestine to aid in digestion — to become blocked or narrowed because of other causes.
It’s important to see your doctor if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.
Gallstones and Other Gallbladder Problems
Gallstones, also known as cholelithiasis, are hardened deposits in the gallbladder that form from bile, the liquid stored in the organ.
While its often unclear exactly why gallstones form in a given person, there are a number of factors — from your diet to your family history — that affect your risk of developing them.
Gallstones can cause some very unpleasant symptoms, including abdominal and back pain, fever, chills, nausea, digestive upset, and vomiting.
Some people have gallstones that don’t cause any symptoms but are discovered in an imaging test done for a completely different reason. In these cases, there’s usually no need to pursue any treatment.
Gallbladder Inflammation: Cholecystitis
Cholecystitis refers to inflammation of the gallbladder. It occurs when bile, the liquid stored in the gallbladder, can’t circulate out of the organ as it normally does.
The most common cause of this inflammation is gallstones, which can get wedged in the ducts that release bile.
Gallbladder inflammation can be quite painful and cause bloating, nausea, fever, chills, and vomiting.
Symptoms of cholecystitis often happen after you’ve eaten an especially large or fatty meal. That’s because bile is normally released by the gallbladder at this time but may not be able to escape the organ because of a blockage.
Cholecystitis can be either acute (short-term) or chronic (ongoing), and the acute condition can develop into a chronic one.
What You Need to Know About Gallbladder Cancer
Gallbladder cancer is rare, but when it does occur, it’s usually not discovered until it has spread beyond the gallbladder.
This disease usually doesn’t cause any symptoms until its later stages. Even then, its symptoms overlap with those of many other gallbladder problems, so it can be hard to identify.
Your doctor will diagnose gallbladder cancer based on blood tests, imaging tests, a physical exam, and your history of symptoms.
If it’s found at an earlier stage, surgery to remove the gallbladder may be helpful. At any stage, chemotherapy and radiation can help limit the growth of cancer cells and potentially reduce symptoms.
The most common surgical procedure related to the gallbladder is removing it completely.
Known as cholecystectomy, gallbladder removal is most often performed to resolve pain caused by gallstones.
There are two methods of gallbladder removal: laparoscopy, which involves several small incisions through which surgical tools and a tiny video camera are inserted; and open surgery, which involves a large incision and a longer recovery time.
Other surgical procedures involving the gallbladder include endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), in which a narrowed or blocked bile duct is examined and repaired.
In rare cases, a swollen gallbladder may be drained if it’s not possible to remove the organ in a timely manner.
Gallbladder Surgery Complications
Gallbladder removal is a common procedure that rarely results in severe complications.
The surgery often causes disruption in your digestive system for a period of time, but this is an expected side effect of the procedure and shouldn’t be alarming.
In some cases, though, more severe complications develop, such as bile leaking into the abdominal cavity, injury to a bile duct, and attacks of pain in the area. These can occur on top of general surgery complications like infection, bleeding, blood clots, and scarring.
You shouldn’t hesitate to contact your doctor if you experience any signs of a complication that may need treatment.
Life Without a Gallbladder
To treat certain gallbladder problems, your gallbladder may need to be surgically removed. But not to worry — your body can function well without a gallbladder in most cases.
People who undergo surgical removal of the gallbladder rarely have any problems with biliary system function after the surgery.Your body can cope with losing its extra storage space for bile by filling the bile ducts — which transport bile from the liver to the small intestine — and using them to store excess bile.
Sometimes, as a result of this surgery and the body’s greater use of bile ducts for storage, the bile ducts may become slightly distended (swollen). This generally isn’t a significant health concern.
Gallbladder Removal and Your Diet
When your gallbladder is removed, bile — the liquid stored in the organ — loses its storage area, and your liver must adapt to releasing bile more directly into your small intestine to aid in digestion.
Before your body adapts to this new reality, it can be more difficult to digest certain fatty and high-fiber foods.
It’s best to introduce a number of foods slowly after your surgery, rather than trying to jump back into your normal diet.
It may also be helpful to eat smaller meals more frequently, since this reduces your small intestine’s demand for bile at any given time.
When to Seek Medical Care for Gallbladder
If you experience pain in your upper right abdomen — particularly after eating very fatty or heavy foods — it’s logical to think about your gallbladder first.
If a person has an episode or recurring episodes of abdominal pain 30 minutes to one hour following meals, call a health care practitioner for an appointment.
Go to a hospital emergency department if the person has this abdominal pain with any of the following conditions:
- the abdominal pain cannot be controlled with over-the-counter pain medication;
- the person begins vomiting or develops a fever, chills, or sweats; or
- the person has jaundice.
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