The gallbladder is a small organ which stores a digestive fluid called bile, which is produced by the liver. During meals, bile is released into the small intestine, where it helps digest fats. The gallbladder stores bile between meals when there is nothing in the stomach that needs digesting.
When an object blocks bile from flowing normally to and from your gallbladder, you may develop a painful condition called cholecystitis.
What is Cholecystitis?
Cholecystitis is an inflammation of the gallbladder. Inflammation most often occurs when an object – usually a gallstone – becomes lodged in the bile duct and prevents the normal passage of fluids. Bile builds up behind the gallstone and causes pain, swelling, and potential infection.
Cholecystitis can also be caused by infection, trauma to the gallbladder, tumors, and issues with the cystic duct. In cases of acute acalculous cholecystitis, a rare form of cholecystitis, other conditions such as HIV or diabetes cause the inflammation.
Cholecystitis is classified as either acute or chronic.
Acute cholecystitis occurs suddenly and without warning, most often as a result of a blocked cystic duct, the tube which carries bile to the small intestine.
Chronic cholecystitis may occur as a result of the gallbladder remaining swollen for a long period of time. Over time, the walls of the gallbladder become thick and hardened. Untreated gallstones are a common reason for gallbladders to be swollen for prolonged periods.
Cholecystitis can be diagnosed by several methods:
- Abdominal CT scan
- Gallbladder scan (HIDA scan)
- Oral cholecystogram
- Abdominal ultrasound
- Physical examination
- Blood tests (to determine if there is an infection or if there are signs of inflammation present)
Acute Cholecystitis Symptoms
It is not yet certain if chronic cholecystitis causes symptoms. Acute cholecystitis, on the other hand, does cause symptoms.
Symptoms of acute cholecystitis include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Jaundice (yellowed skin and whites of eyes)
- Sharp pain or cramps in the upper right side of the abdomen
- Abdominal pain which spreads to the back or below the right shoulder blade
- Clay colored stools
- Steady pain which lasts at least 30 minutes
- Symptoms which do not improve after taking over-the-counter pain relievers
- Symptoms which do not improve when changing position or when gas is released
If you experience any of these symptoms, then it’s important to seek medical attention.
Cholecystitis treatment often consists of a removal of the gallbladder, a procedure known as a cholecystectomy. You can live without a gallbladder, since bile can travel to your small intestine by other routes.
If the gallbladder is infected, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
In some cases, a patient may be too ill to undergo surgery. In these instances, medication may be prescribed which dissolves the gallstones; however, this method may take months or years.
Seeking treatment for cholecystitis will prevent complications from developing.
Complications may include:
- Enlarged gallbladder
- Gallbladder infection, which can leak infected fluid to other organs
- Gallbladder rupture, a potentially life-threatening condition
Gallstones vs. Cholecystitis
Gallstones and cholecystitis share many of the same symptoms, but they are not the same thing.
Cholecystitis is the inflammation which occurs as a result of a blocked cystic duct. Gallstones are the actual obstructions preventing bile from flowing out of the gallbladder.
Gallstones are usually formed when certain substances which occur in bile – especially cholesterol – group together and harden. They can also form when the gallbladder does not empty frequently enough. Gallstones range in size from pebbles to golf balls.
Gallstones may be found during tests for other conditions. For the most part, you do not need to have gallstones removed if they are asymptomatic.
Risk Factors for Cholecystitis
Gallstones are a common cause of cholecystitis. As a result, reducing your risk factors for developing gallstones is the best way to avoid cholecystitis. Some people are at a higher risk of developing gallstones than others.
People with increased risk for gallstones include:
- Older adults
- Native Americans, Hispanics, and people of Scandinavian descent
- People with diabetes
- Family history of gallstones
- People with diets high in fat and cholesterol
- People who are obese or overweight
The best way to prevent cholecystitis is to practice healthy eating habits and exercise. By eating right and keeping active, you can prevent or slow the development of gallstones.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Choose a diet high in whole grains.
- Avoid foods which are high in unhealthy fat, and limit the healthy fats you eat.
- Exercise regularly to keep a healthy cholesterol level; cholesterol is a big contributing factor to the development of gallstones.