Acute Cholecystitis

Written by Carmella Wint and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on 16 July 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Cholecystitis?

Acute cholecystitis is also known as inflammation of the gallbladder. The gallbladder is an organ that sits below the liver, and helps your body digest fat.

Cholecystitis can become very severe and requires immediate medical attention. If you think you have acute cholecystitis, consult with a medical professional as soon as possible.

If this condition persists for a prolonged period of time or if you have repeated attacks, it is called chronic cholecystitis.

What Are the Causes and Risks Factors of Cholecystitis?

Gallstones are the most common cause of acute cholecystitis. According to the British Medical Journal, they are responsible in 90 percent of cases. If gallstones obstruct the bile ducts, bile can build up in the gallbladder. This leads to inflammation.

Acute cholecystitis can also be caused by a severe illness or tumor. However, those causes are rare.

When attacks of cholecystitis are repeated or prolonged, the condition is considered chronic.

Women get gallstones 2-3 times more often than men. They therefore have a higher risk of developing acute cholecystitis.

Risk increases in both sexes with age, although the reason why is unclear. Risk is also higher for people of Scandinavian, Native American, and Hispanic descent.

What Are the Symptoms of Cholecystitis?

The most common sign that you have acute cholecystitis is abdominal pain. This pain is usually located on the middle or right side of the upper abdomen. It may also spread to your right shoulder or back.

Pain from acute cholecystitis can be either sharp pain or dull cramps.

Other symptoms include:

  • stool the color of clay
  • vomiting
  • nausea
  • fever
  • yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin
  • attacks of pain, typically after a meal
  • chills
  • abdominal bloating

How Is Cholecystitis Diagnosed?

The symptoms of acute cholecystitis can resemble many other illnesses. Therefore, your doctor will want to know about your medical history as well as your symptoms. He or shee will probably check your abdomen for swelling or tender areas, or order additional tests.

  • Abdominal ultrasounds use sound waves to create an image of your organs.
  • Hepatobiliary scintigraphy is a procedure that creates an image of the upper portion of the small intestine, liver, gallbladder, and bile ducts.
  • Cholangiography uses dye injected into the bile ducts to show the gallbladder and bile ducts on an X-ray.
  • CT scans are computerized images used to create images of your internal organs.

If your doctor has determined that you do have acute cholecystitis, he or she may also order blood tests to determine if there are any other problems. For example, liver function tests can be abnormal with this condition. Complete blood counts may show higher than normal amounts of white blood cells.

How Is Cholecystitis Treated?

Severe abdominal pain may need immediate treatment. If you are experiencing severe, unexplained abdominal pain, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

It is possible for acute cholecystitis to go away on its own. However, your gallbladder may need to be surgically removed. This can be done with only a small incision in some patients. Other people may require conventional surgery.

Sometimes people who need surgery are too sick to have it right away. They may need to have their gallbladder manually drained until surgery can be performed.

If you have acute cholecystitis, your doctor may put you on antibiotics to prevent infection along with pain medication. He may also recommend a reduced fat diet when you are able to resume eating.

For people with chronic cholecystitis, oral dissolution therapy can help dissolve gallstones, while pain relievers can help control pain during treatment.

How Is Cholecystitis Prevented?

You may be able to reduce your risk of developing acute or chronic cholecystitis by losing weight and eating a healthier diet. Because it is believed that cholesterol plays a part in the formation of gallstones, it may be a good idea to avoid foods that are high in fat and cholesterol. A high fiber diet is typically recommended. Some scientists also think that drinking alcohol regularly, in moderation, and eating nuts can reduce your risk of developing gallstones.

Being overweight increases the amount of cholesterol in your bile. This raises your chances of developing gallstones. If you choose to lose weight to reduce the risk of gallstones, it is best to do so gradually. Rapid weight loss may upset the delicate bile chemistry in your body. That could actually increase your chances of developing gallstones.

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