What Does the Gallbladder Do?
The gallbladder's main function is to store bile, which helps the body break down and digest fats that you eat.
"The gallbladder is part of the biliary system. It does not produce the bile, but it stores the bile that is currently not being used by the body."
The liver produces bile, which flows directly into your small intestine during meals. But between meals, most bile travels instead to the gallbladder, where it is stored until needed.
When you eat fatty foods, your gallbladder releases bile into the small intestine, where it's mixed with partially digested food.
A gallbladder typically holds between 30 and 80 milliliters (1 to 2.7 fluid ounces) of bile.
Bile consists of water mixed with bile salts — which help break down large globules of fat — as well as cholesterol and certain fats and pigments.
Where Is the Gallbladder?
The gallbladder is located in the right upper quadrant of your abdomen, right below the liver.
"If there are any problems, typically the person complains of pain in this location — right below the ribs," notes Dr. Rogula. "Some people also experience nausea."
The gallbladder is attached to the liver, nestled within an indentation. It's typically 7 to 10 centimeters (2.7 to 3.9 inches) long, and it's oblong or pear-shaped.
By far the most common gallbladder problem is gallstones — tiny stones that form from hardened bile and cholesterol.
Gallstones can block the release of bile from the gallbladder and cause:
- Severe pain, particularly after a large meal or fatty foods
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- Fever and chills
Other gallbladder problems are extremely rare, and include:
- Gallbladder cancer
- Perforation (tearing or rupture) of the gallbladder
- Gangrene, if adequate blood flow to the gallbladder is blocked
- Pancreatitis, when gallstones migrate out of the gallbladder and then prevent pancreatic enzymes from traveling to the small intestine
- Bowel obstruction, caused by a gallstone passing into and then blocking a section of the intestines
Gallstones may never cause any pain at all, and may be discovered by chance on an imaging scan performed for unrelated reasons. In this case, no further evaluation or treatment is necessary.
But if you experience pain in your upper right abdomen — particularly after eating very fatty or heavy foods — it's logical to think about your gallbladder first. See your doctor to get the problem checked out.
Life Without a Gallbladder
To treat certain gallbladder problems, your gallbladder may need to be surgically removed.
But not to worry — your body can function well without a gallbladder in most cases.
People who undergo surgical removal of the gallbladder rarely have any problems with biliary system function after the surgery, says Rogula.
Your body can cope with losing its extra storage space for bile by filling the bile ducts — which transport bile from the liver to the small intestine — and using them to store excess bile.
Rogula notes that sometimes, as a result of this surgery and the body's greater use of bile ducts for storage, the bile ducts may become slightly distended (swollen). But this generally isn't a significant health concern.
If you have gallstones or another problem with your gallbladder, you may develop abdominal pain that ranges from mild to excruciating and from rare to nearly constant.
You may also develop indigestion and other digestive upset, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, chest pain, dark urine, or clay-colored stools.
While gallstones are the most frequent cause of gallbladder symptoms, it's possible for your bile ducts — which deliver bile from your gallbladder and liver to your small intestine to aid in digestion — to become blocked or narrowed because of other causes.
It's important to see your doctor if you're experiencing any of these symptoms.
Gallstones, also known as cholelithiasis, are hardened deposits in the gallbladder that form from bile, the liquid stored in the organ.
While it's often unclear exactly why gallstones form in a given person, there are a number of factors — from your diet to your family history — that affect your risk of developing them.
Gallstones can cause some very unpleasant symptoms, including abdominal and back pain, fever, chills, nausea, digestive upset, and vomiting.
Some people have gallstones that don't cause any symptoms but are discovered in an imaging test done for a completely different reason. In these cases, there's usually no need to pursue any treatment.
Cholecystitis refers to inflammation of the gallbladder. It occurs when bile, the liquid stored in the gallbladder, can't circulate out of the organ as it normally does.
The most common cause of this inflammation is gallstones, which can get wedged in the ducts that release bile.
Gallbladder inflammation can be quite painful and cause bloating, nausea, fever, chills, and vomiting.
Symptoms of cholecystitis often happen after you've eaten an especially large or fatty meal. That's because bile is normally released by the gallbladder at this time, but may not be able to escape the organ because of a blockage.
Cholecystitis can be either acute (short-term) or chronic (ongoing), and the acute condition can develop into a chronic one.
Gallbladder cancer is rare, but when it does occur, it's usually not discovered until it has spread beyond the gallbladder.
This disease usually doesn't cause any symptoms until its later stages. Even then, its symptoms overlap with those of many other gallbladder problems, so it can be hard to identify.
Your doctor will diagnose gallbladder cancer based on blood tests, imaging tests, a physical exam, and your history of symptoms.
If it's found at an earlier stage, surgery to remove the gallbladder may be helpful. At any stage, chemotherapy and radiation can help limit the growth of cancer cells and potentially reduce symptoms.
If you have diabetes, you're more likely to have gallbladder problems — but there are ways to lower your risk.
The most common surgical procedure related to the gallbladder is removing it completely.
Known as cholecystectomy, gallbladder removal is most often performed to resolve pain caused by gallstones.
There are two methods of gallbladder removal: laparoscopy, which involves several small incisions through which surgical tools and a tiny video camera are inserted; and open surgery, which involves a large incision and a longer recovery time.
Other surgical procedures involving the gallbladder include endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), in which a narrowed or blocked bile duct is examined and repaired.
In rare cases, a swollen gallbladder may be drained if it's not possible to remove the organ in a timely manner.
Gallbladder removal is a common procedure that rarely results in severe complications.
The surgery often causes disruption in your digestive system for a period of time, but this is an expected side effect of the procedure and shouldn't be alarming.
In some cases, though, more severe complications develop, such as bile leaking into the abdominal cavity, injury to a bile duct, and attacks of pain in the area. These can occur on top of general surgery complications like infection, bleeding, blood clots, and scarring.
You shouldn't hesitate to contact your doctor if you experience any signs of a complication that may need treatment.
When your gallbladder is removed, bile — the liquid stored in the organ — loses its storage area, and your liver must adapt to releasing bile more directly into your small intestine to aid in digestion.
Before your body adapts to this new reality, it can be more difficult to digest certain fatty and high-fiber foods.
It's best to introduce a number of foods slowly after your surgery, rather than trying to jump back into your normal diet.
It may also be helpful to eat smaller meals more frequently, since this reduces your small intestine's demand for bile at any given time.