Gallbladder disease affects over 25 million Americans, and a million new cases are diagnosed each year. It’s especially prominent in young women who may be taking hormones for birth control. It also often occurs in people as they approach middle age, especially if the person does not have healthy dietary habits. Left untreated, this condition can cause substantial discomfort, and complications from an infected gallbladder can lead to severe infection or even death in the worst cases. By understanding what a gallbladder is and how diseases can arise, you can protect yourself against these problems.

What is a Gallbladder?

Your gallbladder is a small organ that connects your liver to your intestines. It stores bile, a substance the body uses to digest dietary fat. Bile is secreted by the liver and travels to the digestive tract to aid in digestion, but excess bile is stored in the gallbladder for future use. When additional bile is needed, the gallbladder constricts and releases more bile into the digestive system.

Occasionally, something can go wrong with the storage and secretion of bile. Gallstones may form inside the gallbladder, causing a blockage and prohibiting the secretion of bile. The gallbladder itself may also have difficulty constricting, which would lead to it overfilling with bile. In either case, a gallbladder overfilled with bile will become swollen and infected.

Symptoms of Gallbladder Disease

The symptom most commonly associated with a gallbladder attack is pain or pressure under the right side of the rib cage. This may be accompanied by radiating pain through to the shoulder. This pain could be accompanied by other digestive symptoms such as nausea or gas, and the pain often worsens with deep inhalation. Deep, frequent belching is another common symptom associated with gallbladder attacks.

Gallbladder attacks frequently occur late at night or after a large meal. They can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 15 hours, and they are sometimes accompanied by a fever. The pain can be extremely severe, and attacks can happen in rapid succession. If your gallbladder becomes infected, the pain may be constant.

What to Do if You Have a Gallbladder Attack

It’s a good idea to visit your doctor after experiencing the symptoms of a gallbladder attack. The doctor will need to rule out other medical conditions that may have similar symptoms. It’s also important to determine whether there is an infection in the gallbladder itself. Infected gallbladders can sometimes burst, and this can cause dangerous sepsis.

Once gallbladder disease has been diagnosed, there are two primary treatment options. The first is to attempt to manage your gallbladder health through diet. Some people find that eating a low-fat diet can alleviate all gallbladder symptoms or reduce their frequency. In addition to fatty foods, gallbladder sufferers may also wish to avoid spicy foods as these can sometimes trigger an attack as well. If you are a woman, you may also need to stop taking any hormonal birth control as these medications can worsen gallbladder symptoms.

The other treatment option is gallbladder removal. The gallbladder is not an essential organ, and your body can adjust well to its removal. Once the gallbladder is taken out, the liver will adjust by producing less bile. This means that you may have difficulty digesting certain fatty foods, but you will not experience any pain after recovery.

Gallbladder surgery is fairly straightforward. Most surgeries are completed laparoscopically by making several small incisions and inserting a camera and tools inside. You will be under complete anesthesia while this occurs. This is a day surgery, and you should be able to go home within a few hours of surgery if there are no complications. The recovery can take from two to six weeks and will depend on your general level of fitness. Because some abdominal muscles must be cut during the surgery, you may need help with heavy lifting or other household tasks for a while until you have fully recovered.

Gallbladder surgery can be expensive, and it may not be the best choice for everyone. If you are experiencing gallbladder symptoms, it’s important to discuss your options with your doctor to determine the best course of action. It may be a good idea to make changes to your diet first to see whether that will solve the problem before moving to more invasive treatments.

If you do not have any gallbladder problems right now, you can do your part to prevent them by following a healthy diet. Try to avoid high quantities of saturated fats by replacing them with healthier alternatives or removing fat from your diet entirely. There is also some evidence that high-fiber diets can reduce the likelihood of developing gallbladder disease. Avoiding certain types of hormones can also protect you. Check with your doctor to see if there are any tips for promoting gallbladder health, especially if you have been identified as high-risk or have a family history of gallbladder disease.