Where is the Gallbladder?

The gallbladder is one of the smaller organs in the body. It is pear-shaped and is situated underneath the liver.

What does the Gallbladder do?

The function of the gallbladder is to store the bile that is produced by the liver, making it part of the ‘biliary system’. In short, bile helps to break down fat from the food we eat. It does this in the small intestine.

When food enters the small intestine, a chemical called cholecystokinin is released. This signals to the gallbladder to pass bile through several tubes (the bile ducts) to the intestine, where biles performs its function.

Bile is a dark brown-green in colour; it’s bile that makes faeces the brown colour it is.

What health conditions are related to the gallbladder?

The gallbladder is probably known much more for the health issues that can arise involving it, rather than its actual function.

There two main conditions that problems with the gallbladder can lead to are:

  • gallstones
  • and cholecystitis

Gallstones

Gallstones are usually formed when hard particles are created in the bile, most often due to high levels of cholesterol. These stones block the passages exiting the gallbladder and the bile ducts.

It is often the case that gallstones cause no symptoms at all, and do not need treatment. According to the NHS, over 1 in 10 adults in the UK will have gallstones. People who are overweight, are over 40, and women who have recently given birth are thought to be more at risk of developing them.

What are the symptoms?

Pain in the centre of the abdomen and just beneath the ribs is the most common symptom, which is known as biliary colic. This tends to be a constant pain and cannot be relieved easily.

Because bile is inhibited in getting through to the intestine in cases of gallstones, this may mean that faeces appears paler in colour than usual.

In more severe instances, liver function may be affected and this can cause jaundice or itchy skin. Fever and diarrhoea can also occur.

How are they treated?

Treatment for gallstones largely depends on how serious the symptoms are. If episodes are infrequent, a doctor may recommend to keep the person on a watchlist with just a prescription of painkillers.

However more severe episodes may lead to removal of the gallbladder through surgery. Due to the gallbladder not being a major organ, it is not essential to have it; and people can lead a normal life without it. It is removed via keyhole surgery, whereby four cuts are made around the abdomen whilst it is inflated.

Cholecystitis

Cholecystitis occurs when the gallbladder becomes inflamed usually due to a gallstone blocking the cystic duct, and can be either acute or chronic.

What are the symptoms?

Pain which is most severe in the upper part of the abdomen, and also reaches up to the shoulder; usually occurring after eating.

It can also cause jaundice and fever.

How is it treated?

Cholecystitis is diagnosed by breathing in deeply with a doctor’s hand pressed against the stomach to see where the pain occurs. This could then be followed by either a blood test or even an ultrasound scan, to give a better examination.

Treatment for cholecystitis will have several stages. To begin with, a doctor could ask a patient to not eat or drink to relieve the stress on the gallbladder. Antibiotics could also be prescribed if an infection is suspected. In order to prevent the likelihood of cholecystitis recurring, a doctor may advise surgery in order to remove the gallbladder. This is the same aforementioned keyhole surgery, known as laparoscopic cholecystectomy.

If several bouts of cholecystitis occur, this can lead to chronic cholecystitis where the gallbladder can no longer store bile effectively and surgery is often needed.

Other conditions affecting the gallbladder

  • Acalculous gallbladder disease

This occurs when the gallbladder becomes inflamed as a result of another illness such as sepsis, and not due to gallstones or blocked bile ducts. Symptoms are very similar to acute cholecystitis.

  • Biliary dyskinesia

This condition comes from the gallbladder being constantly inflamed for a long period of time so the gallbladder can no longer function properly. Symptoms include pain in the upper abdomen after eating or drinking.

Prevention of gallbladder diseases

Not everyone can completely eliminate the risk of gallbladder problems, because there are so many potential different causes. However, it is understood that diet can be an important factor.

For example, making sure you have enough fibre in your diet can help to prevent gallstones. Grains that are more refined and present in sweets, sugary cereals, white rice and bread can potentially increase the risk of problems; so eating whole grain foods, and fats that come from healthier sources such as fish, can help to lower risk.

Because high cholesterol can also cause gallstones, it’s a good idea to keep this in check, eat a healthy balanced diet, and get plenty of exercise.