Gallbladder Disease: A Common American Ailment

An estimated 20 million Americans have gallbladder disease. It’s one of the most common conditions in the United States. The gallbladder is a small sac under the liver that stores bile, a digestive fluid that helps absorb fat and grease from the food we eat.
The most frequent gallbladder problem is gallstones. They form when cholesterol or calcium sediment in bile thickens and hardens. The sediment is similar to the sugar that settles in the bottom of a glass of sweet tea. If there’s too much undissolved sediment in bile, it forms stones.

Gallstones can cause digestive issues and pain. However, unless there are symptoms, sometimes people may never know they have gallstones. When they’re asymptomatic we call them “silent gallstones.” Roughly ten percent of Americans have gallstones, but if there are no painful symptoms no treatment is needed.

But, when gallstones block the bile duct, the gallbladder can become inflamed or infected, causing several symptoms. People often have pain in their middle abdomen or on the right side that radiates to their back. This is usually accompanied by bloating or nausea. The symptoms often occur after eating greasy or fatty food.

The symptoms may appear chronically over a period of months or years, or be sudden and acute. Imaging tests are normally used to diagnose gallstones. When painful symptoms persist, or a gallstone blocks the bile duct, surgical removal of the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) is normally recommended.

Cholecystectomy is one of the most common procedures performed in the United States every year. It is usually done laparoscopically, with just a few incisions, and patients go home the same day. Recovery time is normally about a week.

The risk of complications is low and the gallbladder symptoms usually stop. The great thing about it is that everyone feels better after having their gall bladder removed. I’ve never had anyone say: “I want my gallbladder back”. It is a safe and effective way to resolve the pain of gallbladder disease.

William C. Gibson, MD, FACS, is a surgeon with Premier Surgical Associates at Parkwest Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is board certified in general surgery by the American Board of Surgery and a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

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