Consultant General and Upper GI Surgeon Mr Anselm Agwunobi, explains how the gallbladder works, some of the classic gallbladder symptoms and what else your abdominal pain may likely be.
“The gallbladder stores bile produced by the liver. Bile helps to break down fats, so when you eat a meal, the gallbladder gets to work squeezing some of that bile into the intestine to help with digestion.
“If bile contains too much of one or more of its components, it can harden into pebble-like gallstones, which can block the flow of bile.”
What are gallstone symptoms
For most people, gallstones never cause any symptoms and are known as “silent” or asymptomatic gallstones that are usually discovered accidentally during other medical screening test, scans or procedures. For these asymptomatic gallstones, there’s no need to do anything about them. But occasionally, a blockage can create a build-up of pressure in the gallbladder and causes pain – this is known as a gallbladder attack or biliary colic.
Where do you feel gallbladder pain?
In most patients presenting to us at Apple Surgical Clinic, gallbladder pain is an achy and sometimes a crushing pain felt in the upper abdomen which can radiate to the shoulders or back with the pain lasting anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour. The pain may recur in an identical fashion and is often accompanied by other digestive symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell whether your gallbladder is the source of your abdominal pain. This is usually because a number of things can cause localised pain in the upper abdomen, including a stomach (gastric) ulcer, acid reflux or a heart attack.
Certain people are more likely to have gallbladder problems, including anyone who is pregnant, diabetic, being overweight, over the age of 40, has recently lost a lot of weight quickly, or is taking birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy.
Sometimes, gallstones resolve themselves. In more serious cases, they can get stuck in the gallbladder or in the bile ducts and cause recurring pain. If you have pain that you suspect is related to your gallbladder, seek medical advice from your medical practitioner to help you get the right diagnosis and treatment. It might be helpful to keep a record of when and where you experience symptoms.
If your consultant suspects you may have gallstones, they may book you for an ultrasound and blood tests for confirmation. Sometimes other scans such as MR or CT scan may be required.
If the gallbladder is deemed to be the source of the problem, your doctor might recommend gallbladder removal surgery.
Although this may sound like a dramatic step, the reality is that you don’t actually need your gallbladder to live a happy, healthy life. Your liver can release bile directly into the intestines to help with digestion. The gallbladder can be removed using keyhole surgery as a day procedure and the vast majority of patients who have their gallbladder removed live perfectly well.
Can my gallbladder pain be mistaken for something else?
Certain bowel diseases may mimic signs of gallbladder pain, but they also cause diarrhoea, bloody stool, and weight loss. Gastroenteritis, also known as stomach flu, can also be mistaken for a gallbladder issue. Other conditions can also coexist with gallstones such as heartburn (acid reflux) and stomach ulcers (gastric ulcers) – open sores that develop on the lining of the stomach, so it’s important to seek professional medical advice from your family GP or a specialist gastrointestinal consultant surgeon if you experience symptoms.
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