Pain in the abdomen could be a symptom of gallbladder disease

The next time you complain of gastric pain, think twice before dismissing it offhand. That sporadic pain in the centre of your upper central abdomen, which seems to get worse at times, could be a symptom of gallbladder disease.

“The gallbladder is a small sac on the underside of the liver that is used to store bile, which is produced by the liver to aid in fat digestion,” explains ​​​Dr Teo Jin Ya​​o​, Consultant from the Department of Hepato-pancreato-biliary and Transplant Surgery​ at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth group.

“Bile consists of water, cholesterol, bile salts, fats, proteins and bilirubin (a yellowish-brown pigment),” adds Dr Teo. “If the liquid bile contains too much cholesterol or bilirubin, it can harden into gallstones.”

Gallstones are the most common result of gallbladder disease. Dr Teo says, “When formed, gallstones can be of varying number and size. Some are as small as a grain of sand, while others are as big as golf balls.”

Types of gallstones

There are three main types of gallstones, and their form​ation is affected by factors such as age, diet and ethnicity.

  1. Cholesterol stones

    Made of hardened cholesterol, these are yellowish in colour. In Western countries, most gallstones are cholesterol stones.

  2. Pigment stones

    Made of bilirubin, these are small, dark-coloured stones most commonly seen in the developing world.

  3. ​Mixed stones

    ​These are a combination of cholesterol and pigment stones. In Singapore, this is the most commonly seen variety.

Gallstones can mimic the aching discomfort that so many people mistakenly assume to be gastric pain. “It is important to make the distinction between gastric pain (or peptic ulcer disease) and gallbladder disease as the treatment is very different,” says Dr Teo.

See page 2 for the symptoms of gallbladder disease at various stages.

Ref: P16

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