The gallbladder is a small sac near the liver that stores bile. Bile is a mixture of cholesterol, bile salts, fat, and water that helps your small intestine break down fats. Your liver creates the bile. Sometimes, the ratio of cholesterol to the other parts of bile becomes unbalanced, and gallstones, or concentrated, hard balls of cholesterol, form. These stones can be only a few millimeters to several centimeters in diameter. Often, these stones simply float in the gallbladder, causing no problems.
Symptoms of gallstones appear when the stones become lodged in the tubes that make up the gallbladder or in the bile duct that connects the gallbladder with the small intestine. When this happens, the following symptoms may be present:
- abdominal pain (normally on the right side of your body)
- pain that may extend to the right shoulder blade or back
- pain that appears or worsens after eating a meal, especially after eating fatty or greasy food
- chest pain
- vomiting, nausea, and fever
- tenderness in the abdomen, particularly in the upper right area
- yellowing of skin and eyes (jaundice)
Often the pain will begin at night, and moving around will not make the pain go away. The pain can also prevent you from taking normal or deep breaths. The pain can last from 15 minutes to 24 hours, with 1-5 hour stretches being common. Pain with vomiting, nausea, and fever can mean there is inflammation or infection in the gallbladder.
Most people with gallbladder stones have no symptoms. If there are not symptoms, there is no need for treatment. For unknown reasons, people who have had gallstones for more than 10 years are less likely to have symptoms or problems. Some people can experience one attack of pain from gallstones, and then never have symptoms again. The pain and the other feelings of gallbladder problems can be frightening and overwhelming, however, so people who experience more than one attack of pain often elect to have gallbladder surgery.
Fixing gallstone problems is most easily accomplished by remove of the gallbladder. Removing this organ doesn’t affect your body adversely, as your liver adjusts to the change and sends bile straight to the small intestine when needed. To diagnose gallstones, your doctor will most likely perform an ultrasound or a CT scan. Removal of the gallbladder can easily be done with laparoscopic surgery, including with the da Vinci Surgical System. In Utah, this type of surgery will help you more quickly get back to normal life, with only small amounts of scarring.
Some symptoms of gallbladder problems can also indicate other gastrointestinal problems, or can feel like heart attack symptoms. Be sure to talk with your doctor if you are experiencing any acute pain in your abdomen or chest so that the pain can be correctly diagnosed and treated.