“This pain is pretty intense. It goes right from the right upper abdomen through to my back. It started about twenty minutes after a big meal out last night. I’ve had it happen a couple other times but it usually goes away after a couple hours; this one’s dragging on.” This is one of the many ways a gallbladder attack is described.
In the U.S. about 20 million people have gallstones, and each year about 700,000 patients have their gallbladders removed to relieve troublesome symptoms. The gallbladder follows the appendix as the other sack-like organ next most frequently removed due to disease or malfunction.
So what does the gallbladder do when it’s working correctly? The gallbladder is a 3 to 4-inch-long pouch-like organ tucked up into a pocket of the liver in the right upper abdomen. It stores and secretes bile and other digestive enzymes. When we eat a meal, especially a large fatty one, this little sack contracts, squirting its digestive enzymes through a little duct or tube into the intestine where the enzymes help digest the meal.
So far, so good. But things can go wrong. The gallbladder can develop gallstones of varying sizes. Then when the gallbladder contracts one of these stones can become wedged in the duct leading to the intestine. Depending on where the obstruction occurs, this can sometimes also block off the pancreas causing still more problems. Either way, it produces a tremendous crampy pain, usually in the right upper abdomen or upper mid abdomen and sometimes radiating through to the back.
The pain typically starts shortly after a meal and may last for a couple of hours or more, until the stone passes into the intestine or falls back into the gallbladder after it finally stops contracting. Occasionally the pain persists and a trip to the emergency department, sometimes followed by emergency gallbladder removal (cholecystectomy) is the only solution. An ultrasound of the gallbladder and lab work are usually able to diagnose the problem.
Gallstones are not the only pathology that can arise in the gallbladder. A situation can occur in which it excretes less and less effectively even though it has no stones. In this condition, the gallbladder may look OK on ultrasound and a special scan is needed to identify the problem. Or, even more dangerous, the gallbladder can become infected with bacteria, often due to one of these other malfunctions already mentioned. This requires urgent treatment with antibiotics and eventual surgery. And like most organs in the body, cancer can occasionally occur in the gallbladder, though this is quite rare.
Anyone can have problems with their gallbladder, but certain groups are more at risk. The most common group is Caucasian females around their forties who are overweight. Also, during weight loss there is a temporary increase in gallbladder attacks as the person processes their own fat.
For these reasons and more, the gallbladder may sometimes have to be removed. Often this affords a huge amount of relief for the person. However, besides infrequent complications of residual stones, infection or problems with wound healing, about 10-15% of people have ongoing symptoms after the gallbladder is removed. This has been given the long name post cholecystectomy syndrome (PCS). This is not surprising since God puts things in place for a reason; when we have to remove them, sometimes there are issues to deal with. The loss of the gallbladder can cause symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion, loose stools or cramping. These can be managed but are certainly a nuisance.
So if you’re getting symptoms that make you wonder about this little 3 inch sack, see your doc and get it checked out. It’s helpful when it’s healthy; but if it’s betraying you, it just might have to go.
Andrew Smith, MD is board-certified in Family Medicine and practices at 1503 East Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville. Contact him at 982-0835