Ask a Doctor: The holiday season is peak time for gallbladder disease

Ask a doctor. / Getty Images/byryo
Ask a doctor. / Getty Images/byryo

Q: I am having terrible pain after Christmas dinner. Is it Cousin Eddie’s eggnog or should I see a doctor?

A: The holiday season is known as a time to indulge in all our favorite foods and drinks. What is less known about this season is that it is peak time for gallbladder disease.

The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ located just beneath the liver on the right side of the abdomen. Its function is to store bile, a digestive fluid made in the liver that helps break down the fats we eat into smaller substances, called fatty acids, that are absorbed in the digestive tract. After consuming a fatty meal, hormones signal the gallbladder to contract, which leads to bile being released into the intestine to help digest the food. Bile is composed of a balanced mixture of water, bile salts, lipids and bilirubin. If that mixture becomes unbalanced, stones can form within the gallbladder.

It is estimated up to 35 million American adults have gallstones, and a significant number of those people will eventually become symptomatic. The most common symptom is right upper abdominal pain that occurs after eating, especially after a fatty or greasy meal. There can also be associated nausea and vomiting. The severity of disease can range from very mild discomfort after meals to debilitating pain with life-threatening infection, and the severity will typically progress over time.

If you are having abdominal pain after meals, you should consider being evaluated for gallbladder disease. Your physician will obtain a detailed history of your symptoms and likely order some tests, such as blood work and an ultrasound of your abdomen.

If you are diagnosed with gallbladder disease, then you will be referred to a surgeon to be evaluated for an outpatient minimally-invasive procedure to remove the gallbladder.

Dr. Richard M. Tanner is a general and breast surgeon with University Surgical Associates and a member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society

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