The gallbladder is a small, sac-like organ that lies just under the liver, in the upper, right portion of the abdomen. This organ stores bile, a digestive enzyme created by the liver, which is then passed into the small intestine to break down food. When small pieces of cholesterol or similar particles join together and crystallize, gallstones form.
In most cases, gallstones are small and cause no problems. The patient typically is not aware of these stones unless they happen to be noticed during an ultrasound or a CT scan being performed for an unrelated reason. These gallstones are generally left untreated, as they tend to resolve themselves. When the gallbladder empties, these small stones are simply passed into the small intestine and work their way out of the body. If a stone is large enough, however, it may block a bile duct. When this happens, bile is unable to be passed from the gallbladder into the small intestine. This situation is painful, dangerous, and requires prompt treatment.
Surgical removal of the gallbladder is typical in the case of a blocked bile duct. A person does not need a gallbladder to live a long, healthy life. Without a gallbladder, the bile created in the liver simply passes directly into the small intestine with no stopover. This surgery is performed on approximately 750,000 Americans every year. It is regarded as a safer surgery, with few risks of complications. Surgical removal of the gallbladder is often able to be performed laparoscopically, meaning several small incisions are made in the abdomen and the surgeon inserts small tools into these incisions to remove the gallbladder without having to open the abdominal cavity. Patients receiving this type of surgery are often released from the hospital after one or two days, and are able to resume normal activities shortly afterwards. Patients who are not candidates for laparoscopic gallbladder removal may still receive open surgery, which is more invasive and requires a longer hospital stay, as well as a longer recovery period at home.
There are non-surgical options for patients who are unable or unwilling to undergo surgery. There are medications available to dissolve gallstones, but these are slow acting and may take months or even years to take full effect. Shockwave therapy may be administered in conjunction with medications, in which high-frequency sound waves are used in the hopes of breaking up the stone.
If you experience abdominal pain, seek medical attention. Your doctor can diagnose the cause of the pain and help determine the best course of action.