The term “gallbladder disease” is used for several types of
conditions that can affect your gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped
sac located underneath your liver. Your gallbladder’s main function is to store
the bile produced by your liver and pass it along to the small intestine. Bile helps
you digest fats in your small intestine.
The majority of gallbladder diseases are caused by inflammation
due to irritation of the gallbladder wall, which is known as cholecystitis.
This inflammation is often due to gallstones blocking the ducts leading to the
small intestine and causing bile to build up. It may eventually lead to
necrosis (tissue destruction) or gangrene. Other diseases of the gallbladder
include gallbladder polyps and gallbladder cancer.
Gallstones develop when substances in the bile (such as cholesterol,
bile salts, and calcium) form hard particles that block the passageway to the
Gallstones also tend to form when the gallbladder doesn’t empty
completely or often enough. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as large
as a golf ball.
Numerous factors contribute to your risk of gallstones. These
- being overweight or obese
- eating a high-fat or high-cholesterol diet
- having diabetes
- being age 60 or older
- taking medications that contain estrogen
- having a family history of gallstones
- being female
Cholecystitis is the most common type of gallbladder disease. It
presents itself as either an acute or chronic inflammation of the gallbladder.
Acute cholecystitis is generally caused by gallstones, but it may
also be the result of tumors or various other illnesses. It may present with
pain in the upper right side or upper middle part of the abdomen. The pain tends
to occur right after a meal and ranges from sharp pangs to dull aches that can
radiate to your right shoulder. Acute cholecystitis can also cause:
- different colored stools
After several attacks of acute cholecystitis, the gallbladder
will shrink and lose its ability to store and release bile. Abdominal pain,
nausea, and vomiting may occur.
Gallstones may become lodged in the neck of the gallbladder or in
the bile ducts. When the gallbladder is plugged in this way, bile can’t exit.
This may lead to the gallbladder becoming inflamed or distended. The plugged
bile ducts will further prevent bile from traveling from the liver to the
intestines. Choledocholithiasis can cause:
- extreme pain in the middle of your upper abdomen
Acalculous Gallbladder Disease
Acalculous gallbladder disease, or biliary dyskinesia, occurs without
the presence of gallstones. It can be chronic or acute and may result from the
gallbladder muscles or valve not working properly. The symptoms can include
abdominal pain on the right side of your body that radiates to your shoulder.
Eating foods high in fat often triggers this. Related symptoms may include:
- loose stools
Inflammation, scarring, and damage to the bile ducts is referred
to as sclerosing cholangitis. It’s unknown what causes the disease. People with
sclerosing cholangitis may have an enlarged liver or spleen along with a
decrease in appetite and weight loss.
Cancer of the gallbladder is a relatively rare disease. If it’s not
treated, however, it can spread from the inner walls of the gallbladder to the
outer layers and then to the other organs and ducts. The symptoms of
gallbladder cancer may be similar to those of acute cholecystitis.
Gallbladder polyps are lesions or growths that occur on the gallbladder.
They’re usually benign and have no symptoms.
Gangrene of the Gallbladder
Gangrene develops when the gallbladder stops functioning due to
inadequate blood flow. This may occur due to:
- diseases related to blood circulation
The symptoms of gallbladder gangrene can include:
- pain in the gallbladder region
- nausea or vomiting
- low blood pressure
Abscess of the Gallbladder
Abscess of the gallbladder results when an area of the body
becomes inflamed with pus. Pus is the accumulation of white blood cells, dead
tissue, and bacteria. It may present with upper right-sided pain in the
To diagnose gallbladder disease, your doctor will ask you about
your medical history and perform an abdominal exam. This will include checking
for pain in the abdomen. One or more of the following tests and procedures may
Detailed Patient History
A list of symptoms being experienced and any personal or family
history of gallbladder disease are important. A general health assessment may
also be performed to determine if there are any signs of a long-term
Your doctor may perform a special maneuver during the abdominal
exam to look for what is referred to as “Murphy’s sign.” During this maneuver,
your doctor will put their hand on your abdomen to feel the gallbladder, and then
ask you take a breath while palpating near the gallbladder. If you feel severe pain,
it suggests you may have gallbladder disease.
Chest and Abdominal X-Ray
Symptomatic cholecystitis will sometimes show stones on abdominal
X-rays if the stones contain calcium. An X-ray of the chest may show pleurisy
or pneumonia. However, your doctor should keep investigating even if your X-ray
Ultrasonography uses sound waves to produce images of your
organs. Ultrasonography is the main method of diagnosis for gallbladder disease
and usually reveals the presence of gallstones, thickened walls, or any other
problems in your gallbladder.
Blood tests are done to check for increased white blood cells and
The first episode of gallbladder inflammation without gallstones
is often treated with antibiotics and pain medications. If you have multiple
episodes, your doctor may recommend surgery.
Sometimes surgery to remove the gallbladder is your best option.
It can be done either by opening your abdomen, or laproscopically, which
involves making three holes and inserting a camera. Laparoscopic surgery allows
for easier and faster recovery with minimal scarring. Most surgeons prefer to
use this method for those who don’t have urgent complications.
The gallbladder may form an abnormal passageway, or fistula, to
help process the liver’s bile. This is the most severe problem associated with
gallbladder disease. Complications can also include:
- obstruction of the intestine
- perforation (a hole in the gallbladder)
- bacterial contamination
- malignant transformation
Your diet may play a role in developing gallstones. According to
Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), you should
eat foods high in fiber and healthy fats to help prevent gallstones. Refined
grains (found in sugary cereals and white rice, bread, and pasta) and sugar are
associated with a higher risk of gallbladder disease. Whole grains like brown
rice and whole wheat bread and fats from fish and olive oil are all recommended.