What Are the Symptoms and Treatment of Gallbladder Disease?

Ask the expert.

More than 20 million people have gallbladder disease in the United States. The gallbladder is a small organ located under the liver in the upper right abdomen. It stores bile, a compound produced by the liver to digest fat, and helps the body absorb nutrients. When the gallbladder stops working properly or the bile ducts are blocked, it can cause pain and discomfort. "The important thing to know is that if you are treating yourself at home for symptoms such as indigestion, having chest pain or back pain, it may actually be gallbladder disease," says LaCesha Brintley, M.D., a board-certified surgeon and a fellow of the American College of Surgery (FACS) who is affiliated with Ascension Providence Hospital in Southfield.

"Left untreated gallbladder disease can progress to cancer, or lead to adverse outcomes." There are several conditions included in the category of gallbladder disease. The most common conditions are gallstones and inflamed gallbladder, or cholecystitis. Gallstones occur when high levels of fat and bile cause crystals to form. These crystals may combine over time and expand into stones. Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. They may or may not cause symptoms. Acute or sudden cholecystitis occurs when bile can't leave the gallbladder. This often happens when a gallstone obstructs the tube that bile uses to travel into and out of the gallbladder.

In general, African Americans actually have a lower risk of developing gallbladder disease. However, Dr. Brintley points out an important exception. People with Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) are at a much greater risk of forming gallstones, due to the constant breakdown of red blood cells. According to the Journal of Gut and Liver, studies have found that 30 to 50 percent of people with SCD will develop gallstones. These stones can cause severe pain. Dr. Brintley noted that SCD crisis symptoms often mimic gallbladder symptoms, so removal of the gallbladder is often performed in persons with SCD. While most African Americans do have an advantage in avoiding gallbladder disease, there are steps you can take to further minimize your risk. "Maintain a healthy weight, control diabetes and increase your activity," Dr. Brintley says.

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Gallbladder disease may or may not require removal of the gallbladder, Dr. Brintley says. There are medications used to dissolve gallstones. However, she cautions that if these medications are discontinued, there can be serious side effects and complications as a result. Dr. Brintley adds that most non-surgical management is reserved for people with high surgical risk factors who are unable to undergo general anesthesia. Dr. Brintley says those who have symptoms of gallbladder disease should immediately medical attention. "If you are having unrelenting pain, especially in the right upper abdomen, or back and shoulder pain, get to the doctor and get evaluated," she says.  Other symptoms such as changes in your stool or urine also warrant immediate investigation. she urged. Dr. Brintley says this is especially important if you have a known history of gallbladder disease. "Treating gallbladder disease early can decrease surgical risks," Dr. Brintley concludes.

Get more health information and find a doctor near you by visiting ascension.org/michigan or calling 866-501-DOCS (3627)

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