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What is acute cholecystitis? Why this gallbladder issue put RBG in the hospital

Some gallbladder problems don't need any treatment, but others require swift medical attention. Here's what to watch out for.
Gallbladder, illustration
Gallbladder problems are often minor, but some do require medical attention.Sebastian Kaulitzki / Getty Images

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was recently released from the hospital after being diagnosed and treated for acute cholecystitis — a benign gallbladder condition.

While acute cholecystitis may be benign, there are other problems — sometimes serious ones — that can occur with your gallbladder. It's important to know which symptoms need medical attention and which ones don't. This is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic, when people may be trying to avoid going to the doctor to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Here's what you need to know about your gallbladder and the various problems that can arise with it.

What is a gallbladder and what does it do?

The gallbladder is located in the upper-right section of your abdomen, positioned just under the liver. The gallbladder's function is to store bile and aid in the digestive process. The bile helps break down fat.

According to Dr. Arielle Levitan, a board-certified internal medicine physician, there are a number of factors that put people at increased risk of developing gallbladder problems, including:

  • Being female
  • Being 40 or older
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Experiencing rapid weight loss

What are some common gallbladder problems?

Gallstones, or cholelithiasis, is one of the most common of all gastrointestinal diseases, and incidences of the condition increase with age. In most cases, people with gallstones are asymptomatic. The gallstones are usually discovered during ultrasonography or other abdomen imaging. Levitan explained that while the stones themselves aren't necessarily a problem, they can become one if they block the cystic duct or the common bile duct.

Acute cholecystitis, the condition Ginsburg was treated for at the hospital, is a fairly common benign gallbladder condition. Levitan told TODAY that it's described as inflammation of the gallbladder, usually caused by a gallstone that obstructed the cystic duct.

A gallbladder attack is another common gallbladder problem. The term is commonly used to describe a gallstone blockage. When gallstones block the bile duct that leads to the stomach, pressure increases and creates a spasm, or an "attack," that causes a sharp pain in the center or right side of the upper abdomen, according to experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Signs of a gallbladder problem

There are wide range of symptoms associated with gallbladder problems — and people should always be on the lookout for them. However, Levitan said it's also important to to keep in mind that some issues can occur without symptoms, as is commonly the case with gallstones, and would require a medical professional conducting abdomen imaging to diagnose.

Indicators of gallbladder problems may include:

  • Pain that extends beneath your right shoulder blade or to the back
  • Any pain that feels worse after eating heavier meals, especially if food was fatty or greasy
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Fever ranging anywhere from low-grade to severe

Symptoms that require medical attention

While those experiencing gallbladder pain may want to wait out their pain or avoid the doctor, especially if they live in an area that's still under stay-at-home orders, some symptoms do require medical attention.

According to the Levitan, if you experience abdominal pain along with the following symptoms, that's a sign to seek medical attention as soon as possible:

  • Dark or tea colored urine
  • Pale stool
  • Abdominal pain that's associated with fever, nausea and/or vomiting

How are gallbladder problems typically treated?

Gallbladder problems can be treated in a variety of ways. In some cases, for example, medication can be used to dissolve gallstones.

Depending on the problem, another solution may be gallbladder removal, which can be done if the organ is not working properly. This is typically a minimally invasive laparoscopic out-patient procedure. In other, more complicated situations, doctors may perform an "open" surgery, which would require a larger incision, though that is fairly rare these days, Levitan said.

So I can live without my gallbladder?

The answer is yes. Though it aids in the digestion of fat, the gallbladder can be removed without long-term consequences; however, people might notice digestive issues initially following gallbladder surgery, according to Levitan.

Another procedure that can be used as a temporary gallstones treatment is endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), which is used by doctors to remove gallstones stuck in the bile duct by entering through the esophagus, said Levitan.

If people want to do their part in avoiding gallbladder issues, Levitan suggested they make adjustments to their lifestyle, including choosing low-fat and/or nonfat foods, maintaining a normal body weight, exercising and avoiding rapid weight loss. It's better for your health and your gallbladder, said Levitan, to try losing weight gradually over time instead.