Symptoms of Gallbladder Disease: A Personal Account
Disclaimer: Let me start by saying, I am not a doctor nor am I a nurse or paramedic. I have no medical training whatsoever, but like all of us, I was born with a gallbladder so I feel comfortable relating my personal experience—my personal nightmare with gallbladder problems—symptoms that went incorrectly diagnosed for four years.
What Is the Gallbladder and What 's Its Function?
In order to define what the gallbladder is and what it does, we have to first talk about its big brother—the liver. The liver, among other things, is responsible for cleansing dead red blood cells and toxins from the blood. The liver also produces bile. The gallbladder, which lies underneath the liver on the right side of the body, acts as a "storage reservoir" for this bile. When you eat a meal, particularly one that is high in fat, your gallbladder contracts like a balloon. This contraction causes bile to flow through ducts into the small intestine where it can start to work on digesting the fat you just ate.
What Problems Can You Have?
Gallstones: They are not quite sure what causes these, but bile which consists largely of cholesterol, can crystallize over time and the result is either "sand" in the gallbladder or full-blown "stones." Many people have this condition but have no symptoms—having gallstones or "sand" is no guarantee that you will have symptoms of gallbladder disease. However for some, gallstones can cause symptoms such as pain after eating, bloating, pain underneath the right rib and/or right shoulder, gas, and nausea. The medical term for gallstones is cholelithiasis.
Inflammation: The medical term is cholecystitis. The symptoms are severe pain, fever, and nausea with possible vomiting. If you are this sick, it is likely surgery will be your next step.
Gallstone pancreatitis: When a gallstone blocks the ducts that drain the pancreas, inflammation of the pancreas can result. This is a serious condition, and again, will likely require surgery to remedy the problem.
This is the part of the piece when the frustration I experienced will shine through. Insurance companies insist that tests be run in a certain sequence—least invasive (less costly) to more invasive (more costly.) And, okay—I can see the sense in this. At first, I played the game.
So for the first of many tests, I was sent for was an abdominal ultrasound. This painless procedure is much like the ultrasounds that pregnant women undergo in order to determine the development of the fetus. An ultrasound technician places a lubricating gel on your abdomen. The ultrasound "wand" is then moved around your stomach; sound waves produce an image of your internal organs in "real-time." The technician will measure the gallbladder, check for thickening of the walls, and check for stones. This test is very good at diagnosing gallstones as they clearly show on the images. However, this test cannot usually detect "sand" in your gallbladder and cannot determine the functionality of the organ—your gallbladder may have simply quit "functioning" but ultrasound won't detect this. Each time I went for the ultrasound, no stones were detected, and no thickening of the organ was detected.
The next test—if your physician believes you are having gallbladder issues—is the HIDA scan or cholescintigraphy. This is a painless procedure that involves injecting radioactive dye into your bloodstream. This dye is in turn secreted into the bile. This test will determine if bile is making it from the liver to the gallbladder and is a fairly good diagnostic tool for determining gallbladder disease where gallstones aren't obviously present.
This is the way it is supposed to proceed. However, many physicians simply refuse to listen to their patients' symptoms. And in all fairness, gallbladder disease can be difficult to diagnose—particularly in the absence of gallstones. It can mimic many other common disorders. But it's your job as the patient, as the healthcare consumer, to ask the right questions and to insist your doctor listens to you.
Do the research. Ask the right questions. Don't be afraid to seek a second or even a third opinion. Many physicians simply refuse to consider gallbladder, at first, if your presentation or symptoms deviate from those found in the textbooks. Up until the day I was scheduled for surgery, my primary care physician still had her doubts as to whether my problems were indeed gallbladder-related.
I suffered almost continuous pain (underneath the right lower rib), bloating, nausea, gas, and a general feeling of malaise for nearly four years. I rarely experienced vomiting, but let me assure you, my quality of life was greatly affected.
While they are some alternative treatments, surgery is almost always the best option. Laparoscopic surgery can typically be performed on an outpatient basis and is relatively painless and affords a quick recovery - within three days, I was feeling well enough to return to work. In some instances, traditional surgery is required with a full abdominal incision, etc. This is the last resort as the recovery time could be as much as 5-6 weeks complete with a 5-7 day stay in the hospital. That being said, laparoscopic surgery is the surgery of choice for this procedure and delivers excellent results.
What to Expect Living Without a Gallbladder
For the vast majority of people, life without a gallbladder will be no different than life with a healthy one. However, for a month or two after your surgery, you may have cramping and diarrhea—particularly after eating a fatty meal. This can come about very quickly so I recommend you plan accordingly. For some people, the body never does fully adjust, and this cramping and diarrhea can be a continuing problem. But it is a problem you can avoid by limiting high-fat meals and planning ahead—in other words, don't eat a Big Mac and large fries if you aren't prepared to hang around a bathroom shortly after the fact. But it is certainly nothing compared to suffering with gallbladder disease.