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FAQs about gallbladder attacks

Gallbladder attack

With more than half a million procedures each year, gallbladder removal surgery is one of the most common operations performed annually.

Yet, many people likely know little about the painful disease that affects an estimated 12 percent of the U.S. population. Brice Zogleman, MD, a hospitalist at Ascension Via Christi Hospital in Manhattan, hopes to clear up the subject and provide some “stones” of knowledge about gallbladder disease.

What does a gallbladder do?

A gallbladder stores and secretes bile, which is composed of salts and enzymes that aid in digestion. The bile is produced by the liver and it then flows down the bile tract into the gallbladder, which then secretes it into the intestines during digestion.

What causes gallbladder disease?

Most cases of gallbladder disease are caused by gallstones, which are small hardened pieces of cholesterol that are formed and stored in the gallbladder. A more serious type of gallbladder disease, known as acute cholecystitis, causes inflammation and infection of the gallbladder, and typically requires more urgent action.

Are cholesterol and gallbladder problems linked?

The majority of gallstones are cholesterol stones, but this relates to cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract. When people talk about having high or low cholesterol, they are talking about the levels of cholesterol in your blood, which is not directly related to cholesterol in the gastrointestinal tract and the formation of stones.

What is a gallbladder attack?

Gallbladder attacks occur when a gallstone interferes with the flow of bile that runs into and out of the gallbladder, commonly causing a sharp pain in the right upper abdomen. An attack may often occur after eating, particularly after consuming foods that are high in fat.

How do I know if the pain I’m having is caused by my gallbladder?

Gallbladder attacks can present themselves in many ways, but most commonly they are felt in the right upper abdomen, and you may feel pain in another part of your body (known as referred pain). I have seen patients and physicians both mistake gallbladder pain for that of a heart attack, since people are generally more worried about that occurring. Isolating the pain that someone is feeling can be very challenging. The only true way of knowing if your pain is related to your gallbladder is to see a doctor.

Where will I feel referred pain and how common is it?

Referred pain occurs when pain is received in an area of the body that is not actually causing the pain. For example, you may feel referred pain caused by your gallbladder in your back or right shoulder, even though your gallbladder is located near your abdomen. Referred pain is quite common when you have gallbladder disease, which contributes to it often being misdiagnosed.

What will happen at my doctor’s appointment?

If your doctor suspects you have gallbladder disease, blood work may be ordered. You would also likely have one of three imaging scans performed; a CAT scan, a HIDA scan or most commonly, an ultrasound, which is very good at detecting gallstones and is the simplest method. If it is determined that you have gallbladder disease and it is causing the pain, you would probably be given the option to have your gallbladder removed through surgery.

What happens if I choose to put off surgery?

Gallbladder disease can become quite a serious issue if you ignore it long enough and put off surgery. Putting off surgery would place you at risk of having more gallbladder attacks and the pain that comes with them. If it’s determined that you have the more serious form of gallbladder disease such as acute cholecystitis, delaying surgery could result in infection and very serious illness.

What is the recovery like after gallbladder surgery?

All in all, recovery time and the pain felt after gallbladder surgery is fairly minimal relative to other abdominal surgeries, particularly if you have the procedure done early enough. Many of these surgeries can be done laparoscopically, which only requires a few small incisions in the abdomen.  Most people tolerate it very well and recover quickly.

How can I prevent gallbladder disease?

Like so many other medical conditions diet and exercise are the best tools we have to reduce the risk of gallbladder disease.  Consuming a diet high in fiber, low in fat and maintaining a healthy weight and active lifestyle are all known to reduce a person’s risk of gallbladder disease.  While anyone can develop gallbladder disease; obesity, age, female sex and a history of multiple pregnancies all increase a person’s risk of gallstone formation and gallbladder disease.