What to do When Your Gallbladder is Trying to Kill You
DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical professional, just a girl who fought her gallbladder and won…sort of…
I am sure many people saw on social media that I recently had to undergo an emergent laparoscopic cholecystectomy (that’s doctor-speak for “I had my gallbladder removed with tiny instruments”). What most of you don’t know is that I had been experiencing debilitating gallbladder pain and attacks for a year. This is super fun when you are living in a foreign country with your husband and infant child trying to conduct fieldwork for your dissertation. In Malawi I did not have access to medical care that I trusted enough to help me through proper diagnosis and treatment. Sooo, I was left figuring it all out on my own.
Since my surgery last week, I felt compelled to write about my experiences for two reasons. First, I want to share a bit about my symptoms. Maybe someone out there is having them too but still thinks it is just acid reflux or indigestion. Second, since this is such a common medical problem in the US (currently the 8th most performed surgery, and it disproportionality affects women), I wanted to encourage people not to wait like I did to seek treatment. The surgery to remove the gallbladder is minimally invasive and, once it’s gone, less than 2% of people suffer any kind of digestive complications.
SELF-DIAGNOSIS: YEP, I’VE GOT GALLSTONES
It took two bad attacks in Malawi before I felt confident that my problem was either gallstones or a poorly functioning gallbladder. I made this self-diagnosis by trekking into that scariest part of the world wide web: WebMD, where every hangnail is cancer and every toothache is scurvy.
For me, the attacks only came at night, typically between 1-3 hours after I ate. One moment I was fine and the next I would be in pain. The pain always started on the right side, beneath my ribcage. Sometimes it would feel as if someone was gripping the bone of my lowest rib and trying to crack it. This is a typical symptom: upper right quadrant pain. It can be aching, stabbing, or throbbing. This pain can last hours. For me, sometimes it lasted up to 12 hours. Yeah, alllll through the night I’d be doubled over in excruciating pain.
If the attack was really bad, the pain would cross the right quadrant into the left, making the whole bottom rib cage line feel like it was bending to break. I cannot accurately describe that level of pain. Labor was certainly less painful. It would be difficult to breathe through that pain. There was also no physical position that helped lessen the pain. Lying down was the worst. If I tried to stay lying down I would become nauseated, breaking out in a hot/cold sweat. I’d start shaking.
Pain across the full upper abdomen usually resulted in me spending the night in front of the toilet vomiting or pooping myself until I wanted to die. Sometimes I’d wake up drenched in my own sweat, shaking from the coldness of the floor, and then it would start all over again. For me, the attacks always lasted at least 8 hours. I would not crawl back into bed to try to get some sleep until 5am.
Check out these lovely BEFORE and AFTER shots below…
HOME REMEDIES THAT ACTUALLY WORK… SOMETIMES
Aside from the symptoms that matched gallbladder attacks, I felt confident in my diagnosis when I tried a few home remedies that actually worked! I’m going to highlight three of them here. Again, I am not a medical professional and if you’re having symptoms, go to a doctor!!
1) Lemon in Water So, the first remedy I tried (courtesy of the internet) was the juice of half a lemon squeezed into hot water, like a lemon herbal tea. The acidity of the lemon is supposed to help the gallbladder release bile. I would slowly sip a glass of this concoction and then roll onto my right side (the side with your gallbladder). I really felt like this helped ease my symptoms when I thought an attack was about to happen.
2) Apple Cider Vinegar The second remedy I tried was to mix about two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in with a glass of apple juice. You need to mix the vinegar with something (water will also work) to cut down on the acidity because it can damage your teeth to drink it straight. They recommend apple juice to make the vinegar more palatable. All the health sites recommend using Bragg Organic Apple Cider Vinegar, but I was in Malawi so I only had access to exactly one kind. I treated this the same as the lemon/water: I would make this concoction and sip it slowly over about 20 minutes and then lay on my right side if I thought an attack was coming. More than once, I think this helped stop an attack in its tracks!
3) Pancreatic Massage If the two remedies above did nothing to stop the pain train, I buckled in for a long night. One other thing I can recommend that is not a remedy (but it helps) is pancreatic massage. A few sites referred to this as having like a “mirror effect.” Essentially, massaging the pancreas, which is on the exact opposite side of the body from the gallbladder, can relieve pain in the gallbladder. This did not always work, but when it did, the relief was immediate and washed over me like a warm shower. To do it, just slowly apply pressure to the left side of your body mirroring where the pain is coming from on the right side. Applying pressure, palpate the area using small circle motions or a kneading motion.
PUT DOWN THE BEN & JERRY’S AND GET OFF THE COUCH!
There’s one more preventative measure I can recommend to control gallbladder attacks: diet and exercise. Determined to stop having attacks while I was still in Malawi and helpless to get proper medical care, I did all I could in terms of home remedies. This included eating as healthy a diet as possible and exercising more. In the last couple months of my time in Malawi, I dropped almost 30 pounds and in that last month I had no attacks. When I got back to the US, I tried (and failed) to keep up this routine. I went attack-free for FOUR blissful months before I ate and non-exercised myself back into renewed attacks in late August. It (only) took two more bad attacks to get me to finally go to the hospital.
I knew the night I went into the ER that the doctors would confirm gallstones. The best test for this is an ultrasound. Mine were so large they was impossible to miss on the screen. The technician is not allowed to “read” results, but they were obvious even to my eyes. Two of the stones were over 1 cm long. If you have gallstones, you can schedule a lap. chole. to remove the gallbladder. This is a 60 minute surgery start to finish, I’m talking like prep time, situating me on the table, and clean-up. My surgeon scheduled me at the end of the day. I was his 7th gallbladder removal surgery in one day!
The surgeon makes 4 very small incisions in the abdomen to create ports for the instruments (these heal very quickly). I’m going to spare you those photos. You’re welcome! Because my stones were so large they had to make my primary incision on the left side about twice the size of the others (about 1 inch). This was the port where they pulled out the stone-filled gallbladder. The surgeon told me they really had to fight to get the gallbladder out through this incision and that they were not gentle. He said I would have significantly more pain, bruising, and soreness on the left side as a result and he was not kidding! I’m over a week out and it’s still giving me pain. If I had not waited so long to seek treatment, I’d have four totally healed pink incision lines right now and no pain.
The recovery from this surgery is remarkably fast. I was discharged less than 24 hours later after proving I could move on my own and keep down solid food. After a weekend lounging on my parent’s sleep number bed, I was back home and back to business. There are no weight limits, no lifting restrictions, and no dietary restrictions. Do what you’re able, as soon as you’re able!
PROGNOSIS? THE FUTURE IS LOOKING BRIGHT!
I already had my post-op follow-up appointment and my surgeon assures me I should have no complications of any kind from this surgery and I will be back to normal within two weeks. I can already eat whatever I want. It turns out that the gallbladder is (thankfully) rather ornamental. I am so grateful that my problems were not worse while I was in Malawi where my only option probably would have been an open surgery with a much longer recovery time. I am also thankful that with the last attack I had family and friends around me to watch Ben and help take care of me. I do not wish gallstones on anyone. If you think you’re having symptoms that match mine in any way, go to your doctor and get checked out! Thanks for reading. Next time you see me, you can compliment me on how good I look without a gallbladder!!