Gallbladders: Do They Matter?

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The gallbladder’s main function is to store and concentrate bile (produced by the liver), which helps the body break down and digest fats that you eat. It is attached to the liver, is about four inches in size, and is an oblong-shaped sack. Before you eat, the gallbladder is full and about the size of a pear. After a meal, it is flat and empty, like a deflated balloon. During digestion, hormones are excreted which activate muscles, which in turn, squeeze the gallbladder causing it to parcel out bile as it is needed for digestion.

With all this information, it seems like the gallbladder is an integral part of the digestive system. However, you probably know many people who have had their gallbladders surgically removed. According to the National Institute of Health, more than 750,000 gallbladder removal procedures are being performed annually in the United States. How does one survive without it?

Although it is ideal to keep a healthy gallbladder in place, you can live fine without one. Removing it doesn’t impair the production of needed bile, only its concentration and timed release into the small intestine. Without a gallbladder, diluted bile simply oozes in from the liver continually. Under normal conditions, the body functions quite adequately without the organ.

There are several problems that can affect the gallbladder. These conditions can be painful and interfere with normal digestive processes, often leading to surgical removal of the gallbladder. Examples include:

  • Gallstones – which form for unclear reasons from crystallization of substances in the gallbladder – often causing severe pain and nausea
  • Cholecystitis – which is inflammation of the gallbladder, often due to gallstones – also causing severe pain and fever
  • gallstone pancreatitis – which results from a gallstone blocking the ducts that drain into the pancreas
  • gallbladder cancer – which is rare but can be life threatening

Your doctor can usually diagnose gallbladder problems using non-invasive ultrasound or endoscopy. Consult with Dr. Johnson to decide the appropriate course of action for your case.

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