What is Acute Cholecystitis?

D. Jeffress

Acute cholecystitis is the medical term for gallbladder inflammation that results from gallstones, trauma, or a severe infection. A person who has acute cholecystitis is likely to experience sharp abdominal pains after eating and frequent bouts of nausea and vomiting. Cholecystitis is considered an emergency condition, and medical care should be sought at the first signs of illness and abdominal pain to prevent potentially life-threatening complications. The prognosis for patients who receive immediate surgical treatment is good, and most people experience full recoveries in less than one month.

Cholecystitis is an inflammation of the gallbladder.
Cholecystitis is an inflammation of the gallbladder.

The gallbladder is a small organ that stores bile from the liver and releases it into the small intestine to aid in digestion. Most cases of acute cholecystitis occur when gallstones block the flow of bile out of the gallbladder, causing an excessive buildup that leads to inflammation and swelling. Elderly and obese people are at the highest risk of developing gallstones and resulting cholecystitis. In cases where gallstones are not involved, acute inflammation is usually caused by a bile infection or a direct injury to the abdomen. Rarely, a cancerous tumor can put pressure on the organ and lead to cholecystitis.

Gallstones can lead to cholecystitis.
Gallstones can lead to cholecystitis.

The onset of acute cholecystitis is sudden and often severe. A person usually feels sharp, radiating pains in the right side of his or her abdomen that worsen after eating meals. As the condition persists for several hours or days, nausea, vomiting, fever, and fatigue are common. The abdomen may also begin to swell and feel tender to the touch. Without treatment, it is possible for the gallbladder to rupture and release bile into the bloodstream, leading to severe infections and possibly inoperable organ damage.

An individual who believes that he or she might be experiencing symptoms of acute cholecystitis should go to the emergency room immediately. A doctor can collect a blood sample to check for the presence of bile and conduct a computerized tomography scan to closely inspect the gallbladder. After the physician rules out other possible causes of symptoms, the patient is given pain medications and intravenous fluids to keep his or her vital signs stable. Further diagnostic tests can confirm cholecystitis and allow specialists to determine the appropriate course of treatment.

Doctors occasionally decide to treat the condition by removing gallstones and prescribing antibiotics. Cholecystitis is highly likely to return, however, and become a chronic problem. Therefore, surgery is usually the best option to relieve symptoms and prevent complications of acute cholecystitis.

If a patient's gallbladder is still intact, a surgeon can perform a procedure called a cholecystectomy to remove the organ and connect bile ducts directly to the liver. A ruptured gallbladder requires emergency invasive surgery to prevent organ damage. A patient who undergoes surgery for cholecystitis is typically kept in the hospital for several days so doctors can monitor recovery. When the patient is released, he or she is instructed to maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine and schedule regular checkups with a gastroenterologist to help prevent future problems.

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Discussion Comments


Why does the pain sometimes move to her right shoulder blade? Why does the pain get worse when she takes a deep breath with this disease?

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