In 90% of cases, acute cholecystitis is caused by gallstones in the gallbladder. Severe illness and, rarely, tumors of the gallbladder may also cause cholecystitis.
Acute cholecystitis causes bile to become trapped in the gallbladder. The buildup of bile causes irritation and pressure in the gallbladder. This can lead to bacterial infection and perforation of the organ.
Gallstones occur more frequently in women than men. Gallstones become more common with age in both sexes. Native Americans have a higher rate of gallstones.
The main symptom is abdominal pain that is located on the upper right side or upper middle of the abdomen. The pain may:
- Be sharp, cramping, or dull
- Come and go
- Spread to the back or below the right shoulder blade
- Occur within minutes of a meal
Other symptoms that may occur include:
- Abdominal fullness
- Clay-colored stools
- Nausea and vomiting
- Yellowing of skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
A physical exam will show that your abdomen is tender to the touch.
Your doctor may order the following blood tests:
- Amylase and lipase
- Complete blood count ( CBC) -- may show a higher than normal white blood cell count
- Liver function tests
Imaging tests that can show gallstones or inflammation include:
Patients who have surgery to remove the gallbladder usually do very well.
Call your health care provider if severe abdominal pain persists.
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if symptoms of cholecystitis recur after an acute episode.
Empyema (pus in the gallbladder)
- Gangrene (tissue death) of the gallbladder
- Injury to the bile ducts draining the liver (a rare complication of cholecystectomy)
Peritonitis (inflammation of the lining of the abdomen)
Seek immediate medical attention for severe abdominal pain.
In the emergency room, patients with acute cholecystitis are given fluids through a vein and antibiotics to fight infection.
Although cholecystitis may clear up on its own, surgery to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) is usually needed when inflammation continues or recurs. Surgery is usually done as soon as possible, however some patients will not need surgery right away.
Nonsurgical treatment includes pain medicines, antibiotics to fight infection, and a low-fat diet (when food can be tolerated).
Emergency surgery may be necessary if gangrene (tissue death), perforation, pancreatitis, or inflammation of the common bile duct occurs.
Occasionally, in very ill patients, a tube may be placed through the skin to drain the gallbladder until the patient gets better and can have surgery.
Removal of the gallbladder and gallstones will prevent further attacks. Follow a low-fat diet if you are prone to gallstone attacks.
Siddiqui T. Early versus delayed laparoscopic cholecystectomy for acute cholecystitis: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Am J Surg. 2008;195(1):40-47.
Chari RS, Shah SA. Biliary system. In: Townsend CM, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 18th ed. St. Louis, Mo: WB Saunders; 2008:chap. 54.
Afdhal N. Diseases of the gallbladder and bile ducts. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap. 159.
Review Date: 7/6/2009
Reviewed By: George F Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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