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Gut Check: Gallbladder and Appendix Symptoms You Shouldn’t Ignore

By Clara Higgins, DO

Generally speaking, the body does a good job of letting us know when something is not quite right. A new ache or pain can be easy to brush off, but any sudden onset of significant or recurring pain can be a sign of infection or a more significant issue, and should be addressed right away by a medical professional.

Such is the case when issues of the gallbladder or appendix occur. Symptoms often come on suddenly and can be quite painful, so being aware of the signs that require a trip to the doctor is key.

Understanding the gallbladder and gallbladder attacks

The gallbladder is a small organ located beneath the liver that stores and releases bile. Its job is to help the body digest fats. Despite its small size, the gallbladder can produce a great deal of pain when an attack occurs – most often caused by gallstones, inflammation, or infection. A gallbladder attack triggers sudden and severe pain in the upper right or center of the abdomen. Some patients have feared they are having a heart attack because the pain they experienced was so intense.

Common symptoms of a gallbladder attack include:

  • Severe or sharp pain that doesn’t go away.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Fever or chills, which usually indicate an infection
  • Light-colored stool and/or tea-colored urine
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes caused by a build-up of bile in the bloodstream).

The importance of acting fast in case of an appendix attack

Inflammation of the appendix can result in sudden and severe abdominal discomfort. While your appendix is a small tube, only about 4 inches long, it can cause big problems if it becomes infected.

A common question is – what does the appendix do? The answer to that question is not as cut and dried as you would think. Its purpose within the body isn’t entirely clear. What we do know is that the appendix is attached to the large intestine in the lower right portion of the abdomen. Appendicitis is caused by a blockage and build-up of bacteria, leading to inflammation and infection of the appendix. There’s often no doubting when appendicitis strikes – it hurts.

Symptoms of Appendicitis

  • Sudden and sometimes severe pain in the lower right area of the stomach; pain can begin around the belly button and move lower gradually
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Bloating and gas
  • Diarrhea

Seeking medical attention when symptoms present

If you experience a sudden onset of symptoms and severe abdominal pain along with any of the above symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. An appendix that has burst or ruptured can spread infection throughout the abdomen which can potentially be life-threatening.

Similarly, with gallbladder issues, seek the care of a medical provider as soon as possible, especially if you experience sudden and sharp pain. A gallbladder attack and the presence of stones will not be relieved without medical care.

Surgical care to address urgent issues

While pain medication and antibiotics can be prescribed for gallbladder disease that occurs over time, surgery to remove the gallbladder, called a cholecystectomy, is the common treatment for a gallbladder attack or gallstones. The surgery is typically performed laparoscopically, meaning it requires just a few very small incisions. This leads to a quicker recovery. Cholecystectomy is considered safe and effective in relieving symptoms and preventing future complications, and you can live a normal, healthy life without a gallbladder.

The standard treatment for appendicitis is surgery called an appendectomy. It is performed to remove the appendix, especially if it has ruptured, to prevent further infection and complications. This surgery is also typically performed using a minimally invasive approach requiring just a few very small incisions.

The bottom line

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of gallbladder and appendix issues is important for prompt diagnosis and treatment. Again, listen to your body. Pain is your body’s way of getting your attention when something is wrong.

Clara Higgins, DO, FACOS, is a board-certified general surgeon at Beebe Healthcare. She performs both inpatient and outpatient-based surgical procedures, with focus on urgent colonoscopies and endoscopies. Dr. Higgins also places port-a-caths for cancer patients whose plan of care calls for chemotherapy. She is employed by Beebe Medical Group and practices as part of the Beebe General Surgery Group, located in Lewes.