Written By: Robert Ripley, MD, General Surgeon
The gallbladder is a small organ that will fit in the palm of your hand and stores liquid called bile. When you eat, the gallbladder receives a signal to release the stored bile. The bile flows through a duct and empties into the small intestine to mix with the food you’ve eaten. It helps to absorb the necessary fat that’s in the food. The liver, which makes the bile, also stores it and releases it when you eat.
Gallbladder symptoms range from mild, upper abdominal discomfort, indigestion, and nausea after eating, to severe upper abdominal pain that will penetrate into the back near the right shoulder blade. Sometimes the pain can be below the breast bone and seem like a heart attack. The usual cause of the symptoms are gallstones that form inside the gallbladder, and will intermittently interfere with the normal functions of the gallbladder. The severe pain is caused by a gallstone obstructing the neck of the gallbladder (the narrowest portion) where the bile drains out into the bile duct.
Other problems that are caused by gallstones include pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas gland, and jaundice. These two problems can occur when gallstones flow out of the gallbladder and lodge in the bile duct that empties the bile into the small intestine.
The treatment for gallbladder disease is surgery. Minimal or laparoscopic surgery is the method of choice. This type of surgery uses a video camera placed through a small incision at the naval and then three more small incisions are made near the lower edge of the right side of the ribcage. The surgery is then performed by watching the gallbladder on viewing screens placed above and beside the operating table. It is similar to playing a video game in that you make your movements based on what you see on the screen, rather than making a large opening in the skin and looking directly at the gallbladder. After surgery, most patients feel well enough to go home and come back to the office for follow up.
Laparoscopic surgery allows for a quicker recovery than traditional surgery. Most patients can return to work within three to ten days, and do not have to change their diet. Occasionally, some patients will have loose stools from a meal that has a high fat content.