Diagnosing Gallbladder Symptoms
Sometimes, gallstones are diagnosed before gallbladder symptoms. This is because in many cases, gallstones go undetected and do not cause any pain or digestive upset. In fact, most people don’t think about this unassuming little organ at all, until they begin to feel pain.
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ that sits just below the liver where it stores and regulates bile. The greenish fluid is a key part of our digestive process. Manufactured in the liver, bile consists of cholesterol, bilirubin and bile salts which are used to break down fat in our food. When you consume a meal that contains fat, your gallbladder is stimulated to release the bile it was storing, in the right volume and concentration for what you ate. Bile is also necessary to digest fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D, E and K.
When the gallbladder doesn’t release its contents regularly or the composition is imbalanced, bile may thicken to sludge. Also, gallstones can form from excess cholesterol or bilirubin. These are small, hard stones which range in size from grains of sand to golf balls.
They are often discovered accidentally when people visit their doctor for other tests. An ultrasound will show stones and blockages in the biliary system. This is the same device that is used to view the fetus in a pregnant woman and because it involves no radiation and is non-invasive, this is typically the first choice for assessing gallbladder symptoms.
An oral cholecystogram (OCG) involves having the patient swallow a consumable dye and then take an X-ray of the gallbladder.
Both of these methods for diagnosis are about 95% effective with doctor being able to link the findings to gallbladder disease or gallstones.
Cholescintigraphy (HIDA scan) is performed by injecting a solution with a safe, radioactive marker, into the arm through an IV. The solution is carried to the liver and then stored in the gallbladder, just as bile is. When there is inflammation present or gallstones, a special camera used will not be able to view it leaving the gallbladder.
A CT scan is more detailed than an ultrasound and can show a detailed view of biliary ducts and cause for gallstone treatment.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): This more invasive test will sometimes allow for gallstone removal. A thin, scope is passed through the patient’s mouth and into the digestive system where it can enter the biliary ducts. The endoscope can be used to inject a dye which is then viewed with X-ray.
Sometimes a patient visits the doctor with symptoms of a heart attack and they actually have gallstones. A dysfunctional gallbladder also masquerades as heartburn or indigestion, so doctors will typically ask a series of questions to tie gallbladder symptoms together including questions about loss of appetite, bloating, bowel changes or nausea after eating. If your gallstones are not causing painful symptoms, they will likely recommend reducing the high fat and heavy meals which can trigger a gallbladder attack.