Guide to the Gallbladder: How It Keeps Your Body Healthy

January 25, 2021
William Hanner D.O.

You have probably heard of the gallbladder before, but do you know what it does? Most people do not understand what the gallbladder does or think much about it—until it starts causing them a painful problem that drives them to see a doctor. Yet this organ plays an important and positive role in your body when it is working as it should.

What Is the Gallbladder?

The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ located below the liver on the abdomen’s right side. It is part of the storage system for the biliary system, which sends bile from the liver to the small intestine to aid in digestion and how our body processes fatty foods.

What Does the Gallbladder Do?

The gallbladder plays a role in how the body digests fat. The process begins in the liver, which produces a yellowish fluid known as bile from substances such as bile salts and cholesterol. Bile helps break down the fats we eat and aids in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. 

Once bile is produced by the liver, it moves from the liver to the gallbladder - a storage reservoir, which concentrates and stores this bile for use as needed. When you eat, the bile is sent through the common bile duct to the small intestine, where it can go to work breaking down fatty foods. The nutrients and vitamins are then absorbed to nourish the body, and the waste is eliminated.

What Are Gallstones, and What Does It Mean if You Have Them?

There are many issues that can arise when the gallbladder is not performing as it should. The most common problem is gallstones, which are typically formed when the body has too much cholesterol and not enough bile salts. Because there is not enough bile acid being produced, the cholesterol in the body forms crystals that can clump together to form gallstones. These gallstones can block the bile duct and cause pain after eating, especially if they grow large.

What is the Connection between Gallstones, Obesity, and Weight Loss?

Obesity is often a leading cause of gallstones because the increased weight is connected to increased cholesterol levels which can result in gallstones forming. Rapid weight gain can also result in the formation of gallstones. For women, this can occur during pregnancy.

Surprisingly, rapid weight loss—which constitutes 3 or more pounds a week—can also lead to the formation of gallstones because the body’s ratio of cholesterol to bile salts and other elements can be off as a result of dropping weight so quickly. This can also occur after childbirth.

The best way to lessen the impact of gallstones on the body is to choose a slow, steady, healthy weight loss plan that focuses on long-term results and smart nutrition choices.

How Serious Are Gallstones?

It depends. 

Sometimes, gallstones do not cause any noticeable symptoms. If you are not suffering in any way and your body is working well, you probably will not even know gallstones are there. And if that is the case, you will likely not need to address them.

Unfortunately, it is all too common for gallstones to block the cystic duct blocking the flow of bile from the gallbladder to the bile duct and to the intestines. This typically causes pain 30 minutes to 4 hours after eating. This pain can be located in the right upper quadrant or underneath the breast bone, sometimes even in the chest. Most of the time the pain goes away on its own when the gallstone moves away from blocking the exit. Sometimes it causes bloating, nausea, or vomiting as well.

Occasionally they cause a much more serious problem and the gallstones move from the gallbladder into the bile ducts, where they can block the flow of bile from the liver. This causes the gallbladder to become inflamed, a condition known as acute cholecystitis. Symptoms of acute cholecystitis include nausea, vomiting, pain in the upper right abdomen, occasionally dark urine, yellowing of the eyes, possibly chest pain, possibly an aching right shoulder blade, and can cause pain in the back. This can lead to dangerous life-threatening conditions called Ascending Cholangitis - infection of the bile ducts, or Gallstone Pancreatitis - inflammation of the pancreas.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, they can be life-threatening and you need to see a doctor as soon as possible. Acute cholecystitis is highly treatable with surgery to remove the gallbladder and the gallstones causing the problem. And because the bile will still be able to flow from the liver to the small intestine, you will hardly miss the gallbladder once it is removed.

How Common Is Gallbladder Cancer?

Another issue that people are often concerned about is the possibility of having gallbladder cancer. While it is not nearly as common as gallstones, gallbladder cancer can produce symptoms that are similar to an inflamed gallbladder—including abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, fever, and jaundice.

Gallbladder cancer is best treated in its earliest stages, so whenever symptoms arise that have you concerned, see a doctor determine whether the issue is gallstones, inflammation of the gallbladder, cancer of the gallbladder, or something else.

Get Help for Your Gallbladder and Take Back Your Health

At Midtown Surgical, our team of caring medical professionals is experienced in diagnosing gallbladder concerns—including gallstones, acute cholecystitis, and gallbladder cancer. We’ll work with you to put together a personalized plan of care that helps you address the problem and take back control of your health.

Contact us to set up a consultation or virtual appointment.

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