Author: Jonathan Santos, M.D.
The human body is a complex and well-designed structure that encompasses different organs of various shapes and sizes that are strategically located and connected in such a way to keep the body active and running. A slight malfunction or problem of even the smallest organ may result in complications that will render you uncomfortable and sick. Although seemingly insignificant, one of those small organs that is especially important to be aware of is the gallbladder.
The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ located in the right upper side of the abdomen directly beneath the liver. This organ is essentially a sac that stores bile produced by the liver which your body uses to help digest and absorb fat we eat as part of our daily diet. Unfortunately, it is quite common for the gallbladder to develop complications that result in pain and discomfort. Diseases involving the gallbladder can be very painful, and this may be a sign of a potentially dangerous medical condition. Below are a few things to know in helping you recognize the symptoms of gallbladder disease.
- Right Upper Quadrant Pain – There are different types of diseases that may involve the gallbladder, and pain is a common symptom with all of them. The pain is usually in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen since the gallbladder is located there just directly below the liver. The pain can be very consistent or be described as colicky meaning it comes and goes. Very often the pain is mostly triggered by eating foods high in fat which stimulate the gallbladder to contract and eject stored bile to be used to help digest fatty foods we eat. When this function is impaired, pain is almost always present.
- Fever – Fever is an indication that you have an infection which could be dangerous if it spreads throughout the body. Although rare with gallbladder cancer, fever and chills are very common in all other forms of gallbladder disease, and it is a symptom that makes recognizing issues with the gallbladder important as it could be a sign of something dangerous.
- Jaundice – Jaundice is a condition in which the skin, whites of the eyes, and mucous membranes turn yellow because of a high level of bilirubin, a yellow-orange bile pigment. This build-up of bilirubin is caused the by the inability of bile from your liver to secrete into the intestines because of obstructions caused by all kinds of gallbladder diseases, and it is more severe in the presence of gallbladder cancer.
- Nausea – Although nausea is a symptom that may be related to a wide variety of medical problems, it may also be present with any type of gallbladder disease and lead to vomiting. Long-term gallbladder diseases and disorders ultimately result in problems with digestion, particularly of fatty foods. Digesting foods you usually enjoy and eat become intolerable, and you may develop a feeling of irritation and disgust so strong that it makes you throw up and feel sick.
- Changes in the Urine – Problems with the gallbladder may lead to a change in urine color. Just as there is changes to the color of your skin due to excess bilirubin build up, you may notice your urine getting darker than usual or develop an orange color as time goes on as the excess bilirubin is being excreted by the kidneys into the urine. Some people may first discover they have gallbladder problems with this symptom which often indicates an obstruction such as by a gallstone.
- Changes in Bowel Movements – Chronic issues with gallbladder disease often cause a constant feeling of emptying the bowels, in this case with chronic diarrhea. Unchecked complications like dehydration, fatigue, faintness, and weight loss may develop. Changes in feces may also be noticed as stool might take a light-colored form with fat in it and making it appear pale and greasy.
- Itchy Skin – Some specific kinds of gallbladder disease may cause you to feel itchy due to accumulation of bile in the skin. The itching often can be debilitating and unrelenting. Fortunately, it is a rare symptom and not everyone with gallbladder disease experience this symptom. However, it is a symptom of specific kinds of disease involving the gallbladder such as cancer.
- Loss of Appetite – Eating is essential to staying healthy, strong, and alive. However, loss of appetite is a symptom that can be suffered by victims of gallbladder disease. This is a result of the problem going on with your digestive system because of obstruction of bile, ultimately preventing you from digesting and tolerating foods you usually enjoy. Over time you may end up just not having cravings you once had because foods you once enjoyed just make you sick.
- Weight Loss – With a lack of appetite on the list of symptoms, loss of weight is expected. The inability to eat will result in drastic weight loss that make you look sick. Significant amounts of weight loss ultimately result in weakness and fatigue as your body is deprived of its everyday fuel. Eating foods that are rich in nutrients and more tolerable such as foods low in fat will help combat this symptom.
- Swelling of the Abdomen – Feeling bloated and finding your abdomen distended (swollen) may be a result of gallbladder inflammation or a tumor in the gallbladder. If not quickly treated, the gallbladder may keep swelling and increasing in size causing severe abdominal pain and ultimately a dangerous medical situation. Often swelling becomes severe after eating a fatty meal.
Treatment options often involve surgery to remove the gallbladder, but this can be avoided by staying active and maintaining a healthy weight. Having diabetes and being overweight and obese are significant risk factors in developing issues with the gallbladder. Adopting a healthy diet low in fat and high in fiber with plenty of fruits and vegetables is a good first step to prevent developing disease of the gallbladder. As there are several different types of gallbladder diseases, the symptoms you may experience can be different. Consultation with your doctor is always advised to assist you on your road to health and recovery.
Dr. Santos is a board certified Family Physician faculty member who sees patients of all ages and provides obstetrical services at Lone Star Family Health Center, a non-profit 501©3 Federally Qualified Health Center operating facilities in Conroe, Spring, Willis, Grangerland, and Huntsville, and serving as home to a fully integrated Family Medicine Residency Program to increase the number of Family Medicine physicians for Texas and our community.