The gallbladder is a four-inch, pear-shaped organ positioned under the liver in the upper-right section of the abdomen. The gallbladder stores bile, a combination of fats, fluids and cholesterol. Bile aids in breaking down fat from food in the intestine. The gallbladder delivers bile into the small intestine. This facilitates the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients into the bloodstream.

Usually, the gallbladder is not subject to a health concern. However, if something slows the flow of bile or blocks it totally, then issues can arise. The presence of other co-morbid conditions can also cause gallbladder concerns, including:

  • Obesity
  • Childbirth
  • Gender-related conditions
  • Consumption of fatty foods

Potential gallbladder problems

Any disease that affects your gallbladder is considered a gallbladder disease. The following conditions are some of the common gallbladder diseases.

Inflammation of the gallbladder

Inflammation of the gallbladder also known as cholecystitis can either be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). Chronic inflammation is the result of multiple acute cholecystitis attacks. Inflammation may damage the gallbladder, making it lose its ability to function optimally.

Gallstones

Gallstones are small, hardened deposits that tend to form in the gallbladder. These deposits can develop and remain undetected for several years. Common symptoms of gallstones include inflammation, infection, and pain.

Most gallstones are formed from the cholesterol found in the gallbladder’s bile. A pigment stone, another type of gallstone, is formed from calcium bilirubinate, which is a chemical produced when the body breaks down red blood cells. This type of stone is rarer.

Common bile duct stones (choledocholithiasis)

When gallstones develop in the common bile duct, it is called choledocholithiasis. Bile is ejected from the gallbladder passed through small tubes and deposited in the common bile duct. It then enters the small intestine.

  • In most cases, common bile duct stones are gallstones that had developed in the gallbladder and passed into the bile duct. This type of stone is called a secondary stone or secondary common bile duct stone.
  • Sometimes stones form in the common bile duct itself. These stones are called primary stones or primary common bile duct stones.

Gallbladder disease without stones

Gallbladder disease without stones, also called acalculous gallbladder disease, can occur. In such a scenario, you may experience symptoms commonly associated with gallstones without actually having a stone.

Common bile duct infection

If the common bile duct is obstructed, it can lead to an infection. If not treated, the infection may spread and become fatal.

Abscess of the gallbladder

A small percentage of people with gallstones may also develop pus in the gallbladder. This condition is called empyema. The development of pus, also known as an abscess, leads to abdominal pain. Left untreated, it can become life-threatening.

Gallstone ileus

A gallstone may pass into the intestine and block it. This results in a condition known as gallstone ileus. Although rare, it may be fatal. It’s common among individuals who are older than 65 years.

Perforated gallbladder

If you wait too long to seek treatment, gallstones can form a perforated gallbladder, a life-threatening condition.

Gallbladder polyps

Polyps are abnormal tissue growths that are typically benign or noncancerous. Small gallbladder polyps need not be removed as they don’t usually pose any risk to your gallbladder. However, larger polyps may have to be surgically removed before they cause other problems or develop into cancer.

Porcelain gallbladder

A healthy gallbladder generally has muscular walls. Over time, calcium deposits stiffen the gallbladder walls, making them rigid. This condition is known as porcelain gallbladder. Individuals suffering from this condition have a high risk of developing gallbladder cancer.

Gallbladder cancer

Gallbladder cancer is rare. If not detected and treated promptly, it can spread beyond the gallbladder quickly.

Symptoms of a gallbladder problem

Gallbladder conditions share similar symptoms. These include:

  • Pain – The most common symptom of a gallbladder problem is pain that usually occurs in the mid- to upper-right section of the abdomen. It can be intermittent and mild, or it can be severe and quite frequent. In some cases, the pain can radiate to other areas of the body, including the chest and back.
  • Nausea or vomiting – Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of gallbladder problems. However, only chronic gallbladder disease may cause digestive problems, such as acid reflux and gas.
  • Fever or chills – Chills or an unexplained fever may signal an infection. If you have an infection, you need treatment before it becomes dangerous. The infection can also spread to other parts of the body.
  • Chronic diarrhoea – Experiencing more than four bowel movements each day for over three months can signal a chronic gallbladder disease.
  • Jaundice – Jaundice may be a sign of a block or stone in the common bile duct. The common bile duct is the channel that leads from our gallbladder to the small intestine.
  • Unusual stool or urine – Lighter-coloured stools and dark urine are signs of bile duct block.

When to see a doctor

Symptoms of a gallbladder problem may come and go. However, you are more likely to develop a gallbladder problem if you have suffered from one before.

You can prevent gallbladder problems from worsening by taking action and seeing a doctor on time. Symptoms that need immediate medical attention include the following:

  • Abdominal pain that lasts at least 5 hours
  • Jaundice
  • Pale stool
  • Sweating
  • Chills or low-grade fever