You likely know where most of your major organs are. Heart –upper chest left side, lungs – both sides of your chest, brain – yeah, up there, but gallbladder? Where the heck is that thing? Unless you’ve had problems, you probably don’t know where it is.
Let’s take a little tour.
“X” Marks the Spot
If your gallbladder starts acting up, you’ll know exactly where it is. Otherwise, you’ll just have to trust that it is attached to your liver. At about four inches in length, the shape almost resembles a pear – oblong.
“The gallbladder is located in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen right below the liver,” explains Tomasz Rogula, MD, PhD, a staff surgeon at the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “If there are any problems, typically the patient complains of pain in this location – right below the ribs. Some patients also experience nausea.”
What is the Function of the Gallbladder?
The gallbladder is a storage facility for bile the body needs to breakdown and digest certain fats you consume. Rogula says, “The gallbladder is part of the biliary system, which serves as the storage reservoir for the bile. It does not produce the bile, but it stores the bile that is currently not being used by the body.” He explains that the liver produces the bile and secretes it through ducts into the gallbladder. After you eat, the gallbladder releases bile in response to the small intestine secreting the hormone cholecystokinin. The released bile travels to the small intestine to break down the fats you just consumed.
How Can You Live without a Gallbladder?
Sometimes the best method of treating a problem gallbladder is to remove it. Luckily, your body can function quite well without it.
Most patients who have gallbladder surgery (gallbladder removal) have no problems after the operation with biliary system function, according to Rogula. Without the storage area, the bile ducts fill up and store excess bile, becoming both the means of transferring bile to the small intestine and the means of storing it. Rogula says these ducts sometimes become a little distended after the removal of the gallbladder, but for most people, it isn’t a problem.
How Does a Gallbladder Go Bad?
The biggest problem most people have with their gallbladder is gallstones. Hardened bile and cholesterol form tiny stones that keep the gallbladder from releasing bile. This blockage can lead to:
- Severe pain, especially noticeable after eating fatty or greasy foods
- Jaundice (excess bilirubin in the blood, causing yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- Inflammation, irritation of the gallbladder walls
While rare, these other gallbladder problems may occur:
- Gallbladder cancer
- Perforation – (tearing or rupture) of the gallbladder
- Gangrene – if blood flow to the gallbladder is blocked
- Pancreatitis – caused by gallstones that migrate out of the gallbladder and block the pancreatic ducts
In many cases gallstones may not be painful, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem or that they will just go away. If you eat fatty, greasy foods and then feel pain in your upper right abdomen, it could be your gallbladder. Make an appointment to see your doctor. The problem won’t go away on its own and may become more painful without treatment.