What is a bad gallbladder?

The first sign of a bad gallbladder is pain in your upper right abdomen, where your gallbladder is located. The most common gallbladder problem is gallstones.
The first sign of a bad gallbladder is pain in your upper right abdomen, where your gallbladder is located. The most common gallbladder problem is gallstones.

The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ that is underneath your liver and stores bile. Bile is a digestive fluid that breaks down fat. The gallbladder plays an important part in a healthy digestive system. However, when problems occur that can’t be easily resolved, your gallbladder can be removed through surgery.

The first sign of a bad gallbladder is pain in your upper right abdomen, where your gallbladder is located. The most common gallbladder problem is gallstones. Gallstones are crystallized clumps of bile and dissolved cholesterol that form in your gallbladder or bile duct. They can cause inflammation and pain. Women are more likely to get gallstones than men.

Another problem that can occur in your gallbladder is gallbladder sludge. This is a collection of cholesterol, calcium, bilirubin, and other compounds that build up and block your bile duct. This condition can be painful and may require surgery.

Signs of a bad gallbladder

Pain is usually the first sign of a bad gallbladder. However, there are other symptoms you can look for. The following are signs of a bad gallbladder:

Pain

The most common symptom of gallbladder disease is intermittent pain (meaning that the pain comes and goes) in your upper right abdomen near your rib cage. This pain can be steady or gnawing. It can become severe and radiate to your upper back.

This specific type of pain is also called biliary colic pain. It will typically occur after a meal and can last for several hours before going away.

Nausea or vomiting

You may experience pain in your upper right abdomen that is severe and accompanied by nausea or vomiting. This is a sign of many gallbladder problems.

Chronic diarrhea

Chronic gallbladder disease involves gallstones and scarring of the gallbladder. This buildup of stones and scar tissue worsens gas and nausea and can cause chronic diarrhea after meals.

Jaundice

If you have gallbladder stones that are stuck in your common bile duct, you may get jaundice (yellowing of your skin).

Causes of a bad gallbladder

Gallbladder disease is any disease that impacts your gallbladder. The following conditions may cause a bad gallbladder:

Gallbladder inflammation

This condition is called cholecystitis, and it can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-lasting). Inflammation in the gallbladder can damage the organ and make it stop working correctly.

Gallstones

Gallstones are small, hard deposits that form in your gallbladder and cause problems like inflammation, infection, and pain. Sometimes they can go undetected for years. They are usually very small and can grow to several centimeters.

Bile duct stones

This condition is also known as choledocholithiasis, and it happens when you have gallstones in your common bile duct. The stones can either form in your gallbladder and travel to your common bile duct or form in the common bile duct itself. Stones that form in the common bile duct are more dangerous than those that form in the gallbladder, and they can lead to infection.

Perforated gallbladder

If your gallstones go untreated, they can perforate your gallbladder. This condition is life-threatening, and if the tear isn’t detected, an infection can spread throughout your abdomen.

Gallbladder cancer

This is a rare form of cancer, but if it goes undetected it can quickly spread to other parts of your body.

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When to see the doctor for a bad gallbladder

Gallbladder problems are rarely deadly, but once you’ve had a gallbladder problem you’re more likely to experience another one. Symptoms of a bad gallbladder that require medical attention include:

Diagnosing a bad gallbladder

When you see a doctor for gallbladder problems, they will first run blood tests to determine if there’s inflammation or infection in your bile ducts, gallbladder, pancreas, or liver. They may then run imaging tests to see your gallbladder, including an ultrasound or a computed tomography (CT) scan.

For further diagnosis, your doctor may order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to see inside your bile ducts.

Treatments for a bad gallbladder

If your gallbladder pain is mild, you can try to alleviate your symptoms at home. However, if you feel the need to visit your doctor, they will first diagnose your gallbladder problem before creating a treatment plan.

Your doctor will determine your treatment plan depending on your gallbladder problem. Some treatments include:

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication

Your doctor may recommend trying over-the-counter pain medication first, such as ibuprofen (Aleve, Motrin), to help alleviate pain from a gallstone or other problem.

Prescription pain medication

Depending on the severity of your gallbladder problems, your doctor may prescribe a prescription medication like hydrocodone or morphine.

Surgery

If your gallstones are too large to pass out of your body on their own, your doctor may perform surgery to remove them. In some cases, lithotripsy, the process of using shock-waves to break up gallstones and other masses, can be used. If your gallbladder is rigid or tough from scar tissue, your doctor may have to remove it.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/11/2021
References
Current Gastroenterology Reports: "Gallbladder sludge: what is its clinical significance?"

NHS: "Acute cholecystitis."

NHS: "Gallbladder removal."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Gallbladder Disease."

National Cancer Institute: "Gallbladder Cancer Treatment."

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Diagnosis of Gallstones."

Radiopedia: "Gallbladder perforation."

Southlake General Surgery: "Gallbladder - Symptoms, Problems and Treatment."

University of Michigan: "Bile Duct Stones."