What is Gallbladder Disease? What are Gallstones?
The gallbladder is a small digestive organ that is used to store bile, a substance the body uses to break down fats. “Gallbladder disease” is a broad term used to describe many conditions, including:
- Gallstones: Gallstones are small, hard deposits that can form in the gallbladder.
- Acalculous gallbladder disease: This condition, caused by issues with the gallbladder’s muscles or valves, causes the symptoms of gallstones without the actual presence of stones.
- Biliary colic (gallbladder attack): Gallstones can temporarily block bile flow, causing sudden pain.
- Common bile duct stones (choledocholithiasis): Patients with gallstones may develop stones in the common bile ducts (small tubes leading from the gallbladder to intestines).
- Acute or chronic cholecystitis: Cholecystitis is inflammation of the gallbladder, typically caused by gallstones.
If you are experiencing gallbladder pain, the Pancreatic and Biliary Disease Program at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital is here to help.
What are the Symptoms of Gallbladder Disease?
The most common symptom of gallbladder disease is pain in the upper abdomen, near the rib cage. Pain may radiate to the back or under the shoulder blades, and worsen after a large or fatty meal. Depending on the type of gallbladder disease, it may pass quickly or last for days.
Different types of gallbladder disease vary in presentation. However, they do share some common symptoms, including:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fever and chills
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes)
- Dark urine
- Light-colored or greasy stool
How is Gallbladder Disease Diagnosed?
Your care team will talk with you about your symptoms and medical history. Common diagnostic procedures include:
- Laboratory tests of blood and liver functioning
- Imaging tests, such as ultrasounds, MRIs, and CT scans
- Endoscopic Ultrasound (EUS)
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
- Cholescintigraphy, a test used to find blockages
How is Gallbladder Disease Treated?
There are three main approaches to treating gallbladder disease:
- Expectant management: If your gallbladder disease is not severe and you are at low risk for complications, your doctor may simply monitor your condition over time. Although gallbladder disease will not go away on its own, lifestyle changes can improve symptoms.
- Nonsurgical therapy: Oral medications can help some patients slowly dissolve gallstones. Others may improve through the use of lithotripsy, a therapy that uses sound waves to break up blockages.
- Surgical intervention: When gallbladder disease is severe or complicated, surgery may be needed.
Sometimes, the gallbladder needs to be removed entirely through a procedure called a cholecystectomy. The gallbladder is not an essential organ, and this is a common, minimally-invasive procedure.
In other cases, it may be beneficial to break up blockages using ERCP or to drain the gallbladder using a procedure called percutaneous cholecystectomy.