The gallbladder is a small organ located in the upper abdomen. This non-vital organ stores a substance called bile that aids in the digestion of fatty substances. As many as 15% of people will experience gallbladder issues at some point in their life. Gallbladder inflammation and gallstones are some of the common issues that people experience with the gallbladder. Ongoing gallbladder issues usually require surgery to remove the gallbladder.
What causes gallbladder issues?
Gallstones (cholelithiasis) are the most common cause of gallbladder issues. When gallstones accumulate and cause issues, the gallbladder may need to be removed by a surgical procedure. When gallstones block the flow of bile out of the gallbladder through the bile duct, this prevents the gallbladder from functioning properly. Sometimes, gallstones can be taken out without removing the entire gallbladder but if gallstones persist, your doctor may recommend removing the gallbladder in its entirety.
Common risk factors that make you more likely to develop gallbladder issues include:
- Being female
- Having children
- Being over the age of 40
- Being overweight
Symptoms of gallbladder issues
A top indicator of gallbladder issues is intense abdominal pain. If you are experiencing this symptom, we highly recommend seeing a doctor and asking for scans to see if you need surgery.
Additional symptoms of gallbladder issues that may require surgery include:
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
How do doctors diagnose gallbladder problems?
If you think you may have gallstones or other gallbladder issues, then your doctor can perform tests to confirm this to be true and how severe your situation really is.
Ultrasounds are an easy and pain-free approach to diagnosing gallstones. Using sound waves, ultrasounds allow your physician to see inside of your body to determine if you have gallstones and how big they are.
If you require further testing, your doctor may order a CT scan or MRI. CT scans and MRIs offer a more detailed view of the gallbladder and other abdominal organs.
HIDA scans are another diagnostic test for gallstones and involve injecting a radioactive material called hydroxy iminodiacetic acid (HIDA) into the blood. This allows your doctor to see the emptying ability of the gallbladder. You may also hear of this test referred to as cholescintigraphy.
Blood tests are another way to give your doctor an idea of your gallbladder’s function and your need for surgery. Your doctor may want to look at your complete blood count (CBC) to see if your white blood cell levels are high, indicating infection. They may also test your blood for amylase and lipase levels. This helps determine if there are issues with the pancreas since untreated gallstones can lead to pancreatitis.
Having a trusted provider on your team can help swiftly diagnose gallbladder issues and initiate treatment to prevent complications from arising. UCF Health has skilled providers who can help to diagnose gallstone issues and prevent further complications from occurring.
What happens during gallbladder removal surgery?
Most people with gallstones will require surgery. More than 1.2 million cholecystectomies are performed yearly in the United States.
There are some treatment methods that can help to break down gallstones and help them dissolve but these methods aren’t always the most effective and are usually mainly for people who cannot undergo surgery due to other health issues.
A cholecystectomy is usually a laparoscopic procedure, meaning that it is performed through small incisions in the abdomen using camera guidance. Cholecystectomies can be performed as an “open” procedure, meaning that the surgeon uses a larger incision. This is usually only done when the gallbladder is severely inflamed or scarred.
Before the procedure
To prepare for gallbladder removal surgery, you’ll most likely be asked to refrain from eating anything the night before surgery. You may also have to stop taking certain medications and supplements — be sure to tell your doctor all about any medicine that you’re currently taking.
You’ll likely be able to go home the same day as surgery, but sometimes complications arise that result in an overnight hospitalization. Pack some extra clothes just in case you end up needing to stay overnight for observation.
You’ll be given general anesthesia at the start of surgery, this will stop you from seeing or feeling anything during the procedure. If your doctor is doing a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, then they will make four small incisions and insert long instruments, one of which has a camera on the end. The camera will show the surgeon the inside of your abdomen, allowing them to remove your gallbladder without fully opening up your abdomen.
If you are having a traditional or open cholecystectomy, then your doctor will make a six-inch incision on your abdomen below the ribs on the right side through which your gallbladder will be removed. The incision will be closed up with sutures.
Both types of cholecystectomies take about one to two hours.
What happens after a cholecystectomy?
Hours after surgery, you’ll be taken to a recovery room until the anesthesia wears off. You may go home following your procedure or you may need to stay at the hospital overnight.
You will probably need a couple of weeks to fully recover before you can return to your usual activities. Open cholecystectomies usually require a longer recovery time due to the larger incision. If you notice any signs of infection such as fever, chills, severe pain and tenderness or redness at the incision site then call your doctor immediately.
Living without a gallbladder is not very different from living with one. If you were previously struggling with frequent gallstones, you’ll likely be relieved that the pain and discomfort of gallstones is now gone.
The gallbladder is not essential for healthy digestion so you should go back to feeling like yourself once you’ve recovered from surgery. The gallbladder does play a role in fat digestion, so you’ll have to be mindful about the amount of high-fat foods you eat and you will probably need to refrain from eating fried foods in the immediate weeks following surgery.
The healthcare team at UCF Health can follow you from start to finish on the journey of treating your gallstones for good. Our doctors can help you determine which type of surgery is best for you. On the day of surgery and in the weeks that follow, our skilled doctors and nurses will make sure that you have everything you need for a successful surgery and recovery. Schedule your visit today.