The pear-shaped organ known as the gallbladder may only be three to four inches long, but it can be a large pain if it is not working properly, causing damage to pancreas, liver or even resulting in death if left untreated.
The gallbladder is a storage tank for bile produced in the liver until the body needs it for digestion. Problems occur when the bile hardens into little pebble-like substances called gallstones and block the release of bile into the digestive system. Gallstones can be as big as a golf ball or as small as a grain of sand. Many people with gallstones don’t even know they are there.
When gallstones block the bile ducts, pressure increases in the gallbladder and may result in a gallbladder “attack.” An attack may follow a “fatty” meal, causing pain in the abdomen or in the back either between the shoulder blades or under the right shoulder.
Sometimes the pain subsides after an “attack” because the gallstone has moved. However, infection and rupture can still occur. People with prolonged pain; nausea and vomiting; fever or chills; yellowish coloration of the skin or eyes; or clay-colored stools should see a doctor immediately.
Over one million patients are diagnosed with gallstones each year. The good news is that the gallbladder is one organ you can live without, and surgery to remove the gallbladder is one of the most common surgeries performed on adults in the United States. It can often be done on an outpatient basis and may be performed laparoscopically, or with tiny incisions through the abdomen.
Although anyone can develop gallstones, the following tips can help prevent gallstones or their recurrence once treated.
- Don’t avoid eating or fast. Eating at least three balanced meals each day helps prevent the build-up of bile.
- Watch your diet. A diet that is high in fiber and calcium and low in saturated fats helps prevent the formation of gallstones.
- Maintain your target weight. Obesity increases your risk for gallstones, but so does rapid weight loss. Strive for an overall health plan to achieve a normal weight for your age and height.
Because gallstone symptoms may be similar to those of a heart attack, appendicitis, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), pancreatitis and hepatitis, an accurate diagnosis is very important. Don’t let this little problem become a big issue.