I had two separate series of events over the course of almost 2 years involving severe abdominal pain. 4-5 events about 2 years ago, and another 4-5 over the past 2 months. I underwent multiple scans, most of which came back saying my gallbladder was all-clear. Following another type of scan and the worst event to date, gallstones were discovered in my gallbladder. I was quickly scheduled for surgery and had my gallbladder removed. I’m now recovering. The following is a recounting of my experience.
It might help to provide a quick primer on the gallbladder before I continue and where it fits in with how your body works. One thing your liver does is produce bile. Bile is used to help break down fat so it can be better digested. The liver delivers bile to the gallbladder where it is then concentrated and stored until needed. When you eat something with fat, the gallbladder will squeeze, injecting bile into your intestines. This helps break down the fat.
A couple of years ago, one night as I was trying to get ready for bed, I started feeling pain and what I’d describe as a tightness in my back. As the night continued on it didn’t go away and intensified. Eventually, I felt what I started describing as a muscle cramp near the bottom of my ribs on the right side. This was no regular muscle cramp — it was the worst I’d ever felt. There was no sleeping that night, and the pain lasted for around 8 hours. For a couple of days afterward, the area felt “tired.”
To put this pain in scope: women that have both given childbirth and had a “gallbladder attack” have at times described the gallbladder issue as being more painful than childbirth. I’m not here to say one hurts more than the other. But, I wanted to provide some context here on the level of pain I’m referring to.
At the time, I was going through a particularly stressful series of events at work. The same thing ended up happening again, not too long after. Since it started off in my back and felt like muscles pulling to me, I chalked it up to stress and continued on. I tried various things like Advil, etc. when the events hit, but nothing could touch the pain.
After a total of 2-3 events, I scheduled an appointment with my doctor’s office and was scheduled for an ultrasound of my gallbladder. I didn’t really think this was the cause since, as I keep saying, it felt muscular to me. Admittedly, some of the worst pain I’ve ever felt, but still, seemed muscular.
I had the ultrasound and received the results which came back all-clear. They were looking to see if they could find gallstones or other abnormalities. Since the pain was not constant and so far we couldn’t put rhyme or reason to the cause, my doctor recommended keeping an eye on it. I think I had 1-2 more events, but then they basically stopped.
This all transpired over about 2 months. The stress at work dissipated, I stopped having pains, and I figured that was that. I continued on with life.
Well, in June of this year (little less than 2 years later), the pain came back one night. It wasn’t as bad as before but was still enough to keep me up all night.
I had started a new job and am lucky enough to have a doctor’s office on-site, so I set up an appointment and went to see one of the doctors. Luckily, I ended up meeting someone that would become my favorite doctor of all time. She was very concerned about the pains and didn’t want to blow it off, insisting that I not disregard it as well (to the point that she’d call me and make sure I was making follow up appointments, etc.).
She ran every test she could in the office regarding checking blood work, urine, etc. (liver, blood cells, all that). I showed my primary care physician the list of tests she ordered, and they basically said, “wow, that’s a pretty full list, let’s see what it all says” and didn’t order further tests. The doctor from work had me do some other tests as well in case she had to refer to me to a specialist (some sort of breathing test, etc.).
All of those tests seemed to come back generally okay. My doctor from work didn’t want just to drop it though and ordered another ultrasound since it had been nearly two years since my last one. I thought it was a bit overboard, as I was still under the impression this was all muscular. I believe I had another event before the ultrasound. The timeline is a little hazy at this point.
I went through with the ultrasound, and it came back all-clear. There was one area they weren’t sure about but said it could be adjacent bowel, etc. Since that didn’t really turn anything up, and I had another event, I was scheduled for an MRI. The MRI also came back clear. Basically, it noted that everything appeared fine and within normal limits.
I was really convinced at this point that it wasn’t my gallbladder and something else had to be going on. However, my doctor from work wouldn’t let up. She contacted me about something called a HIDA Scan. One of the purposes of this scan is to test the function of your gallbladder. Its use isn’t to directly image the organ itself, but look to see how it operates.
First, they inject you with some low radioactive solution that will collect in your liver before being transferred to your gallbladder as bile (crazy stuff). After the injection, they have you lay under a particular scanner that can detect the radioactive particles by taking a picture around once per minute. You first see the liver appear, then the gallbladder and finally your small intestine. Once absorbed by your gallbladder, they have you drink something high in fat (Ensure in my case) to make your gallbladder do its thing. Then they watch for how it functions.
This is where things got interesting in my case. You’re supposed to watch the radioactive solution get absorbed for an hour, drink the fatty stuff, then monitor the gallbladder function for around an hour. After the initial hour, my gallbladder was nowhere to be seen. They continued to watch, and after about 75 minutes total, my gallbladder started to show up. After almost 2 hours it had finally absorbed what it should. They had me drink the Ensure and then scanned me for another hour. My gallbladder had 0% excretion (around 33% would have been deemed ok).
We had finally proven there was an issue with my gallbladder. The weekend after the scan, I had another attack. The worst yet in fact (vomiting, intense pain, fever). My doctor from work was a bit aggravated with me for not going to the emergency room, but I figured it was a reaction to the test and would pass. She ended up sending me to the emergency room Monday morning when I saw her. At the emergency room, they did another ultrasound, and this time gallstones were found. It’s still not clear how they’d never been seen before unless my body was somehow dissolving them periodically or the attacks were me somehow passing them.
From here, things began moving relatively fast. I was allowed to discharge from the emergency room with an appointment to see a gastroenterologist in 2 days (last week). I met with him, and it was pretty clear cut that based on my, essentially, non-functioning gallbladder and now proof of stones, the recommendation was the removal of the gallbladder. I was scheduled for surgery Monday morning (this week) and told to basically not eat fatty foods (which I’d already started after the event following the HIDA scan).
So, on August 13th I underwent laparoscopic surgery to have my gallbladder removed. I really liked the surgeon that performed the operation. He was very friendly and spent plenty of time with my wife and me before the surgery, then spent time with my wife after the surgery while I was still in recovery, and visited with me multiple times while I was in the recovery room. This helped me since I’d never had any sort of surgery before and was a bit nervous about being under general anesthesia, breathing tube, etc. I was able to return home the same day of my surgery since things went well. I ended up only being in surgery for about one hour and fifteen minutes, but at the hospital for most of the day (about 8am-4pm).
I haven’t had my official follow-up appointment with him yet, but he told my wife that my gallbladder had a fair amount of scar tissue when they removed it. I’m assuming from the “attacks” and the fact that it had been not performing or sub-performing for who knows how long now.
So what now? Well, I’m out of work this week. Hoping to return next week. I have a follow-up appointment with the surgeon in a couple of weeks. Supposedly, living without my gallbladder shouldn’t impact my quality of life too severely if things go well for me (knock on wood). The liver still produces bile and can get it to my intestines, but my digestion of fatty foods might change a bit since the gallbladder is no longer there to really watch for fats and inject when needed. The surgeon hopes that I’ll be able to return to my regular eating habits and live mostly how I did before. Though I know I might need to make some adjustments. One recommendation I’ve read is more frequent, but smaller, meals can help since the bile is continuously being put into your digestive system now.
As for right here, right now … I just had my first “normal” meal in about 2 weeks. I had been mostly easting plain toast, crackers, etc. to prevent another event. I had half a peanut butter sandwich (light on the peanut butter), and a handful of ChexMix. This was mostly to see how I’d do with digesting the peanut butter due to the fat content. Hopefully, that goes well, since if you know me, you know I practically live on peanut butter.
Otherwise, my recovery is going reasonably well. The 2 days after the day of surgery were the worst regarding pain and discomfort. I still have some discomfort here on the 3rd-day post-operation, but am starting to feel something resembling normal again.
Worth a quick note — I had no idea how common gallbladder removal apparently is. I’m surprised how many people I’ve encountered throughout this process that have either had theirs removed or have someone in their immediate circle that have had it removed. I’ve read different figures from the tens to hundreds of thousands of gallbladder removal surgeries that happen in the US per year. Apparently, it’s a leading cause of abdominal pain visits to the ER.
Thank goodness for the doctor at work that wouldn’t let up and insisted we find the root cause of all of this.