woman with gallbladder pain

Can I live without my gallbladder?

This is a question I get often after recommending someone should have theirs out.

The gallbladder is like a little waterproof sack that sits under the liver at the lower edge of the right ribs. It connects to the liver by a system of little tubes, called ducts. The ducts connect to the first part of the small intestine, called the duodenum. The function of the gallbladder is pretty simple. It is a little storage bag for chemicals that drain out of the liver. Those chemicals are stored in the gallbladder until we eat a fatty meal. When we eat fat, the gallbladder squeezes the chemicals into the intestine. The chemicals act sort of like dish soap to help break down fat so that it can be absorbed into the body and used as fuel. In a nutshell, the gallbladder sits around waiting for us to eat fat.

So what can go wrong with the gallbladder?

Most people think about gallstones when they think about gallbladder problems. Gallstones remind me of beads you find in a bead shop. Some are the size of sand and some are as big as a chicken egg. Common gallbladder problems boil down to irritation of the gallbladder lining and blockage of the tubes that drain the gallbladder. Both of these problems can be caused by gallstones or can happen without gallstones.

What does a bad gallbladder feel like?

Having a bad gallbladder can cause a little nausea or it can feel like you got run over by a truck. Some people say that they have mild nausea, more burping than usual and maybe a slight discomfort under the right ribs. Other people say it’s the worst pain they ever had in their belly, back and right shoulder. They throw up uncontrollably and feel miserable.

How do you live without it?

It all has to do with fat. Your gallbladder absorbs quite a bit of fat at one meal. Without a gallbladder, you can still absorb fat, just not as much at one time.

I have wondered why we are made the way we are. I like to try to think about it in terms of what life was like when we came about. It was difficult for early humans to get fat in their diet. They ate what stood still (plants) and only occasionally could catch an animal with fat on it. That’s where the gallbladder comes in. The gallbladder allowed early humans to absorb much more of the limited amount of fat they ate.

Today, the amount of fat in our diet is crazy. That is why we can live without a gallbladder. In fact, the excess fat in our diet plays a role in making our gallbladder go bad in the first place.

Contact Richard McNutt, MD, General Surgeon at (920) 965-7411