The gallbladder is an organ that’s found in your abdomen. Its function is to store bile until it’s needed for digestion. When we eat, the gallbladder contracts, or squeezes, to send bile into your digestive tract.
Gallbladder disorders such as gallstones are common digestive conditions. It’s estimated that up to 20 million Americans have gallstones. Keep reading to learn more about the gallbladder, its function, and the signs of a gallbladder problem.
Your gallbladder is a part of your biliary system, which is made up of your liver, gallbladder, and associated ducts. This system is needed for the production, storage, and secretion of bile.
Bile is a thick liquid that’s green, brown, or yellow in color. It’s used to help with the digestion of fats and is produced by your liver. It’s estimated that your liver can produce
During a meal, bile moves from the liver directly to the small intestine. However, when you’re not eating, it has to be stored somewhere until it’s needed. This is where the gallbladder comes in.
The gallbladder stores and concentrates bile. It typically holds
Your gallbladder is located in the right upper quadrant of your abdomen. This is the area on the right side of your abdomen that ranges from the bottom of your sternum (breastbone) to your navel.
Inside your body, the gallbladder can be found under the liver. It’s approximately the size of a small pear.
One of the most common symptoms of a gallbladder issue is pain. This pain can:
- come on suddenly
- intensify quickly
- occur in the upper right area of your abdomen, but may also be felt in the upper right part of your back
- happen following a meal, often in the evening hours
- last a varying amount of time, from minutes to hours
Other indications that you may have a gallbladder issue are digestive symptoms. These can include nausea and vomiting.
Gallstones are hard nuggets of material that can form in your gallbladder. They can be made up of cholesterol or a bile salt called bilirubin and can vary in size.
It’s unclear what causes gallstones. However, several risk factors include, but are not limited to:
- being female
- carrying excess weight
- eating a diet high in fat or cholesterol
Many people with gallstones don’t experience symptoms. However, when stones block a duct in the biliary system, pain can occur. When symptomatic gallstones are left untreated, complications can result.
Cholecystitis is when your gallbladder becomes inflamed. This is often due to a blockage caused by gallstones. Other factors that can cause cholecystitis include tumors, infections, or issues with blood circulation.
Some of the most common symptoms of cholecystitis include:
- severe pain located in the upper right or center of the abdomen
- pain that spreads or radiates to the right shoulder or back
- a tender abdomen, especially when touched
- nausea or vomiting
If the condition is left untreated, it can cause potentially serious complications. This may include a tear in the gallbladder or an infection of the bile.
Treatment may involve medications to address the inflammation, but in some cases gallbladder removal is necessary.
Gallbladder disease without stones (acalculous gallbladder disease)
In some cases, you may have cholecystitis without the presence of gallstones. This happens in about
This condition is often seen in people with injuries to their abdomen or who have spent time in an intensive care unit. It’s believed to be caused by a lack of oxygen to the gallbladder, which causes bile to build up.
Gallbladder disease without stones is often treated by removing the gallbladder.
Choledocholithiasis happens when a gallstone blocks the common bile duct. This is the duct that takes bile from the liver to the small intestine. When this happens, bile begins to back up in the liver.
People with choledocholithiasis usually experience pain in the upper right part of their abdomen. Other symptoms include:
- yellowing of the skin or eyes, known as jaundice
- very dark urine
- clay-colored stools
- nausea or vomiting
The condition is treated by removing the gallstone from the duct using an endoscope. Removal of the gallbladder may also be recommended to prevent the condition from happening again.
Gallbladder polyps are growths that project into the inside of the gallbladder. About 95 percent of polyps are benign (noncancerous).
Most people with polyps have no symptoms and the polyps are found by a routine ultrasound or CT scan. However, some people do experience symptoms, such as pain in the upper right part of the abdomen and nausea.
Polyps that aren’t causing symptoms can be monitored via ultrasound to see if they get larger. Gallbladder removal may be recommended in the case of symptomatic or large polyps.
Less common gallbladder issues
There are other conditions that can affect the gallbladder. However, they occur less commonly than the conditions discussed above:
- Gallbladder cancer. Gallbladder cancer is a rare type of cancer. Little is known about what causes it, but risk factors can include things like being female and having gallstones or obesity.
- Gallbladder abscess (empyema). This happens when a pocket of pus forms in the gallbladder. It can be a serious complication of cholecystitis caused by a gallstone blockage.
- Porcelain gallbladder. Porcelain gallbladder is a rare condition where calcium builds up on the inside wall of the gallbladder, causing symptoms similar to those of gallstones. Its cause is not known.
- Perforation. This is when swelling causes the gallbladder to burst or tear. Gallbladder perforation is a life threatening condition.
The following strategies may help lower your risk of gallbladder conditions such as gallstones:
- Focus on fiber. Eat foods that are high in fiber, such as whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
- Choose healthy fats. Examples include olive oil and fish oils.
- Limit sugary, fatty foods. Try to limit foods that are high in sugar, contain refined carbohydrates, or are high in unhealthy fats.
- Maintain your weight. Having overweight or obesity is a risk factor for gallstones. If you need to lose weight, plan to lose it slowly.
- Keep a regular eating schedule. Skipping meals or fasting can increase your risk of gallstones.
Your gallbladder can be removed, if necessary. This is typically recommended if you have painful gallstones that are causing blockages or inflammation.
People without a gallbladder can live a normal life. Your liver will still produce the bile that you need for digestion. However, instead of being stored in the gallbladder, the bile will move directly to the small intestine.
After you’ve had your gallbladder removed, you may need to make dietary adjustments to help your body adapt to the change. Dietary changes may include:
- gradually increasing the amount of high-fiber foods you eat — eating too much fiber too soon after surgery may cause bloating or diarrhea
- limiting your consumption of fatty foods
- decreasing your intake of caffeine
It’s important to speak with your doctor if you think you have symptoms of a gallbladder problem such as gallstones. This typically involves sudden pain in the upper right part of your abdomen. This pain often happens after eating.
Some symptoms may indicate a more serious gallbladder problem. Seek immediate medical attention for abdominal pain that’s severe, lasts longer than 5 hours, or occurs along with:
- nausea or vomiting
- yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
- very dark urine
- clay-colored stool
Your gallbladder is located in the upper right portion of your abdomen. Its function is to store bile that’s produced by the liver.
There are a variety of conditions that can affect the gallbladder, the most common of which are gallstones. Untreated gallstones can lead to potentially serious complications like blockages and inflammation.
See your doctor if you have pain in the upper right part of your abdomen, particularly after eating. This could be a symptom of gallstones.
Severe pain in the right part of the abdomen that’s accompanied by nausea or vomiting, fever, and chills can indicate a more serious condition that needs emergency medical attention.