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Gallbladder attack can be frightening but is easily diagnosed and treated


It’s not uncommon for an individual to end up at the emergency room because of a biliary cholic — a “gallbladder attack.” With the pain, nausea and other symptoms, some may even mistake it for a heart attack. However, Gallstones are common, occurring in 20 percent of all females, and diagnosing and treating the problem is relatively simple.

What is the gallbladder?

The gallbladder is a small (3 inches by 2 inches) reservoir for bile. Bile is made by the liver and transported to the gallbladder for storage by a small tube or duct. Bile is made of several components including bile salts and cholesterol that aid in the absorption of fatty acids. Whenever you eat a fatty meal the gallbladder is stimulated to contract and secrete the bile into your gastrointestinal tract.

Why does the gallbladder give people trouble?

Stones can form within the gallbladder because of imbalances in bile salts and cholesterol. These stones can become lodged in the small duct exiting the gallbladder and this can cause pain when the gallbladder contracts.

Who most commonly has gallbladder trouble from gallstones?

Traditionally women over age 40 who have had children are at the highest risk of developing gallstones or gallbladder disease (cholecystitis). Other risk factors include: Obesity, rapid weight loss, and being of Native American or Mexican American ethnicity. Some diseases and medical conditions may predispose you to gallstones such as Crohn’s disease or previous ileal (a region of small bowel) resection. Females are twice as likely to develop cholecystitis as males; however, gallstones can strike men and women at any age.

What are the symptoms of gallbladder disease?

Typically patients experience pain underneath their right rib cage and it can radiate to their back. The pain usually occurs 30 minutes to two hours after eating high fat foods. There is often a feeling of bloating, nausea and occasionally vomiting associated with the pain.

How is gallbladder disease treated?

Unfortunately, there are no medications to prevent gallstones or treatments to break them up. Some people are able to prevent minimize pain by avoiding fatty foods or other foods that seem to trigger attack, but surgical removal of the gallbladder is usually the only permanent treatment. This can usually be completed with laparoscopic surgery in which a small camera is inserted through a small hole, and surgical instruments are used to remove the gallbladder as opposed to a large open incision. After surgery, most patients leave the hospital the same day and are back to doing all their normal activities within two weeks.

Will I miss the gallbladder?

Not having a gallbladder is generally not associated with any major disadvantages. Without a gallbladder, all of the bile produced in the liver flows directly into the small intestine through the common bile duct, without being stored first, and the body functions just as well as it always did.

If you are experiencing pain after eating (or an increase of pain beyond what you may normally feel after a large meal), talk to your doctor.

About Kyle Vincent MD

Kyle Vincent, MD, is a surgeon with Via Christi Clinic at Founders' Circle in Wichita, Kansas.