Many people experience “gallbladder attacks” and undergo treatment for gallbladder problems. But what exactly does the gallbladder do, and what are gallbladder attacks?
The gallbladder sits under the liver in your right upper abdomen. It stores bile made in your liver. After you eat, the gallbladder contracts and pushes bile into the intestine. From there, bile helps break down and digest food, especially fats.
Gallstones, the result of a gallbladder that does not function normally, can be a source of problems. They form in the gallbladder when substances in the bile start to crystallize and pack together.
Gallstones can range from tiny grains of sand to as large as a golf ball. About 15 percent of Americans have gallstones, but only about one-third will develop symptoms.
“Just because gallstones are found on a CT scan or ultrasound does not mean you automatically need to have gallbladder surgery,” says Dr. Carol Sawmiller, a general surgeon. “The goal of surgery is to relieve recurrent symptoms and prevent gallbladder infection. If you are feeling fine, surgery will not be helpful.”
Symptoms and diagnosis
Typical symptoms of gallbladder disease are a pain in your right upper abdomen, nausea, bloating, and belching. Pain tends to occur after eating fatty foods and often radiates up to the shoulder blade or to the back. Diarrhea also can be a symptom.
These symptoms overlap with irritable bowel syndrome, gastritis, reflux, and food allergies or sensitivities like lactose intolerance. This sometimes makes the diagnosis of gallbladder disease more difficult.
Your doctor can order an ultrasound to diagnose stones if you have these symptoms. If you have no stones but continue to have symptoms, a test called a HIDA scan can evaluate how well your gallbladder functions. Sometimes symptoms are managed with dietary changes — avoiding high-fat foods or specific foods that trigger attacks. Sometimes surgery is needed.
When to treat
“If you have symptoms consistent with gallbladder disease and an abnormal test, you may benefit from gallbladder surgery,” Dr. Sawmiller says. “Almost all gallbladder surgery is minimally invasive, through several small incisions. People usually go home the same day.”
The gallbladder often gets blamed for symptoms it does not cause, like weight gain, crampy diarrhea, vague abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting unrelated to food. Gallbladder surgery is often not helpful if the testing is normal. “All surgeries have risks, so we need to be reasonably sure that the gallbladder is the cause of the concerning symptoms,” advises Dr. Sawmiller. “If the symptoms don’t fit and the testing is normal, we need to look for other causes of pain, like ulcers, gastritis, or food allergies.”
If you do not have a doctor, find one today through our physician referral service, or call (937) 762-1163.
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