You know you have a gallbladder, but do you know where it is or what it does?
Your gallbladder is one of the organs that you won’t think too much about — unless something goes wrong.
Most people aren’t even certain where their gallbladder is located.
But when your gallbladder starts to hurt, you’ll know right away where it is.
Where Is the Gallbladder?
“The gallbladder is located in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen right below the liver,” says Tomasz Rogula, MD, PhD, a staff surgeon at the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
“If there are any problems, typically the patient complains of pain in this location — right below the ribs,” adds Dr. Rogula. “Some patients also experience nausea.”
The gallbladder is attached to the liver, is about four inches in size, and is oblong or pear-shaped.
What Does the Gallbladder Do?
The gallbladder’s main function is to store bile, which helps the body break down and digest fats that you eat.
“The gallbladder is part of the biliary system, which serves as the storage reservoir for the bile,” says Rogula.
“It does not produce the bile, but it stores the bile that is currently not being used by the body.”
The liver produces bile, which flows through the bile ducts and into the gallbladder, says Rogula.
After a meal, bile is released by the gallbladder when the small intestine secretes a hormone called cholecystokinin.
Then the bile flows into the small intestine and helps to break down fats — for example, that big cheeseburger you just ate.
Life Without a Gallbladder
To treat certain gallbladder problems, sometimes the gallbladder must be surgially removed.
But not to worry — the gallbladder is one organ your body can do without.
People who undergo surgical removal of the gallbladder rarely have any problems with biliary system function after surgery, says Rogula.
The body can cope with losing its extra storage space for bile by filling the bile ducts — which transport bile from the liver to the small intestine — and using them to store the excess bile.
Sometimes, as a result of this surgery, Rogula notes that the bile ducts may become slightly distended, but this generally isn’t a big concern.
By far the most common gallbladder problem is gallstones— tiny stones that form from hardened bile and cholesterol.
Gallstones can block the release of bile from the gallbladder and cause:
- Severe pain, particularly after eating fatty or greasy foods
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- Inflammation and irritation of the gallbladder walls
Other gallbladder problems may also occur, but these are extremely rare:
- Gallbladder cancer
- Perforation (tearing or rupture) of the gallbladder
- Gangrene, if adequate blood flow to the gallbladder is blocked
- Pancreatitis, caused by gallstones migrating out of the gallbladder and then blocking the pancreatic ducts
- Bowel obstruction, caused by a gallstone passing into the intestine and then blocking the intestines
Gallbladder problems like gallstones may never cause any pain at all, but that doesn’t mean that they will resolve themselves.
If you experience pain in your upper right abdomen — particularly after eating very fatty, heavy, or greasy foods — think about your gallbladder first.
See your doctor to get the problem checked out, and take care of your gallbladder problems.