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Cholecystitis refers to a painful inflammation of the gallbladder's wall. The disorder can occur a single time (acute), or can recur multiple times (chronic).


The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ in the upper right hand corner of the abdomen. It is connected by a series of ducts (tube-like channels) to the liver, pancreas, and duodenum (first part of the small intestine). To aid in digestion, the liver produces a substance called bile, which is passed into the gallbladder. The gallbladder concentrates this bile, meaning that it reabsorbs some of the fluid from the bile to make it more potent. After a meal, bile is squeezed out of the gallbladder by strong muscular contractions, and passes through a duct into the duodenum. Due to the chemical makeup of bile, the contents of the duodenum are kept at an optimal pH level for digestion. The bile also plays an important part in allowing fats within the small intestine to be absorbed.

Causes and symptoms

In about 95% of all cases of cholecystitis, the gallbladder contains gallstones. Gallstones are solid accumulations of the components of bile, particularly cholesterol, bile pigments, and calcium. These solids may occur when the components of bile are not in the correct proportion to each other. If the bile becomes overly concentrated, or if too much of one component is present, stones may form. When these stones block the duct leaving the gallbladder, bile accumulates within the gallbladder. The gallbladder continues to contract, but the bile cannot pass out of the gallbladder in the normal way. Back pressure on the gallbladder, chemical changes from the stagnating bile trapped within the gallbladder, and occasionally bacterial infection, result in damage to the gallbladder wall. As the gallbladder becomes swollen, some areas of the wall do not receive adequate blood flow, and lack of oxygen causes cells to die.
When the stone blocks the flow of bile from the liver, certain normal byproducts of the liver's processing of red blood cells (called bilirubin) build up. The bilirubin is reabsorbed into the bloodstream, and over time this bilirubin is deposited in the skin and in the whites of the eyes. Because bilirubin contains a yellowish color, it causes a yellowish cast to the skin and eyes that is called jaundice.
Gallstone formation is seen in twice as many women as men, particularly those between the ages of 20 and 60. Pregnant women, or those on birth control pills or estrogen replacement therapy have a greater risk of gallstones, as do Native Americans and Mexican Americans. People who are overweight, or who lose a large amount of weight quickly are also at greater risk for developing gallstones. Not all individuals with gallstones will go on to have cholecystitis, since many people never have any symptoms from their gallstones and never know they exist. However, the vast majority of people with cholecystitis will be found to have gallstones. Rare causes of cholecystitis include severe burns or injury, massive systemic infection, severe illness, diabetes, obstruction by a tumor of the duct leaving the gallbladder, and certain uncommon infections of the gallbladder (including bacteria and worms).
Although there are rare reports of patients with chronic cholecystitis who never experience any pain, nearly 100% of the time cholecystitis will be diagnosed after a patient has experienced a bout of severe pain in the region of the gallbladder and liver. The pain may be crampy and episodic, or it may be constant. The pain is often described as pushing through to the right upper back and shoulder. Because deep breathing increases the pain, breathing becomes shallow. Fever is often present, and nausea and vomiting are nearly universal. Jaundice occurs when the duct leaving the liver is also obstructed, although it may take a number of days for it to become apparent. When bacterial infection sets in, the patient may begin to experience higher fever and shaking chills.


Diagnosis of cholecystitis involves a careful abdominal examination. The enlarged, tender gallbladder may be felt through the abdominal wall. Pressure in the upper right corner of the abdomen may cause the patient to stop breathing in, due to an increase in pain. This is called Murphy's sign. Physical examination may also reveal an increased heart rate and an increased rate of breathing.
Blood tests will show an increase in the white blood count, as well as an increase in bilirubin. Ultrasound is used to look for gallstones and to measure the thickness of the gallbladder wall (a marker of inflammation and scarring). A scan of the liver and gallbladder, with careful attention to the system of ducts throughout (called the biliary tree) is also used to demonstrate obstruction of ducts.
Rare complications of cholecystitis include:
  • massive infection of the gallbladder, in which the gallbladder becomes filled with pus (called empyema)
  • perforation of the gallbladder, in which the build-up of material within the gallbladder becomes so great that the wall of the organ bursts, with a resulting abdominal infection called peritonitis
  • formation of abnormal connections between the gallbladder and other organs (the duodenum, large intestine, stomach), called fistulas
  • obstruction of the intestine by a very large gallstone (called gallstone ileus)
  • emphysema of the gallbladder, in which certain bacteria that produce gas infect the gallbladder, resulting in stretching of the gallbladder and disruption of its wall by gas.


Initial treatment of cholecystitis usually requires hospitalization. The patient is given fluids, salts, and sugars through a needle placed in a vein (intravenous or IV). No food or drink is given by mouth, and often a tube, called a nasogastric or NG tube, will need to be passed through the nose and down into the stomach to drain out the excess fluids. If infection is suspected, antibiotics are given.
Ultimately, treatment almost always involves removal of the gallbladder, a surgery called cholecystectomy. While this is not usually recommended while the patient is acutely ill, patients with complications usually do require emergency surgery (immediately following diagnosis) because the death rate increases in these cases. Similarly, those patients who have cholecystitis with no gallstones have about a 50% chance of death if the gallbladder is not quickly removed. Most patients, however, do best if surgery is performed after they have been stabilized with fluids, an NG tube, and antibiotics as necessary. When this is possible, gallbladder removal is done within five to six days of diagnosis. In patients who have other serious medical problems that may increase the risks of gallbladder removal surgery, the surgeon may decide to leave the gallbladder in place. In this case, the operation may involve removing obstructing gallstones and draining infected bile (called cholecystotomy).
Both cholecystectomy and cholecystotomy may be performed via the classical open abdominal operation (laparotomy). Tiny, "keyhole" incisions, a flexible scope, and a laser device that shatters the stones (a laparoscopic laser) can be used to destroy the gallstones. The laparoscopic procedure can also be used to remove the gallbladder through one of the small incisions. Because of the smaller incisions, laparoscopic cholecystectomy is a procedure that is less painful and promotes faster healing.


Hospital management of cholecystitis ends the symptoms for about 75% of all patients. Of these patients, however, 25% will go on to have another attack of cholecystitis within a year, and 60% will have another attack within six years. Each attack of cholecystitis increases a patient's risk of developing life-threatening complications, requiring risky emergency surgery. Therefore, early removal of the gallbladder, rather than a "wait-and-see" approach, is usually recommended. Cure is complete in those patients who undergo cholecystectomy.


Prevention of cholecystitis is probably best attempted by maintaining a reasonably ideal weight. Some studies have suggested that eating a diet high in fiber, vegetables, and fruit is also protective.



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Key terms

Bile — A substance produced by the liver, and concentrated and stored in the gallbladder. Bile contains many different substances, including bile salts, cholesterol, and bilirubin. After a meal, the gallbladder pumps bile into the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine) to keep the intestine's contents at the appropriate pH for digestion, and to help break down fats.
Bilirubin — Produced when red blood cells break down. It is a yellowish color and when levels are abnormally high, it causes the yellowish tint to eyes and skin known as jaundice.
Cholecystectomy — An operation to remove the gallbladder.
Cholecystotomy — An operation during which the gallbladder is opened, gallstones are removed, and excess bile is drained. The gallbladder is not removed.
Duct — A tube through which various substances can pass. These substances can travel through ducts to another organ or into the bloodstream.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


inflammation of the gallbladder, acute or chronic.
Acute Cholecystitis. The most frequent cause of acute cholecystitis is gallstones. Other causes include typhoid fever and a malignant tumor obstructing the biliary tract. The inflammation may be secondary to a systemic sepsis.

The symptoms of a mild inflammation may be very slight and include indigestion, moderate pain and tenderness in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen that is usually aggravated by deep breathing, malaise, and a low-grade fever. When gallstones or other disorders cause complete obstruction of the bile ducts, the symptoms are much more extreme. The pain becomes unbearable, the temperature may rise to 40°C (104°F), and there is nausea and vomiting.

Treatment of acute cholecystitis may entail either cholecystectomy or cholecystostomy. In some cases the surgery may be postponed until the attack subsides.
Chronic Cholecystitis. Chronic cholecystitis progresses more slowly than acute cholecystitis, but it also is usually the result of gallstones or other conditions that lead to obstruction of the bile ducts and impaired gallbladder function. It is the most common disorder of the gallbladder.

The characteristic symptom of chronic cholecystitis is indigestion manifested by discomfort after eating, with flatulence and nausea. If the meal has been larger than usual, or high in fat content, the symptoms are more pronounced and there is eructation (belching) and regurgitation. There may also be vomiting and some pain in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen. It is not unusual for patients to suffer repeated episodes before seeking medical attention. Neglect of the situation may lead to permanent damage to the gallbladder and liver.

Diagnosis of cholecystitis is aided by the use of ultrasonography to visualize an enlarged, inflamed gallbladder and detect the presence of gallstones. Radionuclide scanning is the most reliable diagnostic test for cholecystitis.

The preferred treatment of chronic cholecystitis with gallstones is cholecystectomy. If surgery is contraindicated for some reason, then the symptoms may be controlled to some extent by low-fat diet, restriction of alcohol intake, and spacing of meals so that large amounts of food are avoided and there is not a long interval between meals.
emphysematous cholecystitis that due to gas-producing organisms, marked by gas in the gallbladder lumen, often infiltrating into the gallbladder wall and surrounding tissues.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


Inflammation of the gallbladder.
[chole- + G. kystis, bladder, + -itis, inflammation]
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


Inflammation of the gallbladder.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


Inflammation of the gallbladder.

Acute cholecystitis
Clinical findings
Right upper quadrant pain, variable severity, sudden onset, rigidity and rebound tenderness with peritonitis, nausea, vomiting, constipation, fever, slow pulse, Murphy sign; spontaneous remission is not uncommon.
Stones by ultrasound, plain films, CT.
Chronic cholecystitis
Classically occurs in overweight child-bearing women over age forty; cholecystitis is also associated with oral contraceptives and heredity.
Clinical findings
Some patients are asymptomatic; otherwise the symptoms of acute inflammation wax and wane.
Bilirubin or cholesterol stones by ultrasound, plain films, CT.
Conservative therapy to dissolve stones.
Segen's Medical Dictionary. © 2012 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved.


GI disease Inflammation of the gallbladder. See Acalculous cholecystitis, Acute cholecystitis, Chronic cholecystitis, Emphysematous cholecystitis.
Acute Clinical Right upper quadrant pain, variable severity, sudden onset, rigidity and rebound tenderness with peritonitis, N&V, constipation, fever, slow pulse, Murphy sign, spontaneous remission is not uncommon Imaging Stones by ultrasound, plain films, CT Management Cholecystectomy
Chronic 'Classically' occurs in the '4 F' group–female, fat, fertile, and forty; cholecystitis is also associated with oral contraceptives and heredity Clinical Some Pts are asymptomatic; otherwise the symptoms of acute inflammation wax and wane Imaging Bilirubin or cholesterol stones by ultrasound, plain films, CT Management Conservative therapy to dissolve stones
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Inflammation of the gallbladder.
[chole- + G. kystis, bladder, + -itis, inflammation]
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


Inflammation of the gall bladder. This common condition is nearly always associated with obstruction to the outflow from the gall bladder, usually by a gallstone but sometimes by thickened mucus or a worm or, rarely, by cancer. There is severe pain under the right lower ribs, fever, shivering, restlessness, pallor, vomiting and sweating. JAUNDICE may occur. Treatment is with antibiotics, bed rest, pain relief and fluids followed by surgical removal of the gall bladder.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Wada, "Endoscopic naso-gallbladder drainage in the treatment of acute cholecystitis: alleviates inflammation and fixes operator's aim during early laparoscopic cholecystectomy," Journal of Hepato-Biliary-Pancreatic Surgery, vol.
Cholecystitis, pancreatitis and hemobilia: a serious trilogy after liver biopsy.
The treatment and revised classification of gallbladder perforation in acute cholecystitis: the importance of intrahepatic and abdominal abscess formation.
Stump cholecystitis: laparoscopic completion cholecystectomy with basic laparoscopic equipment in a resource poor setting.
All patients with clinical suspicion/Diagnosis of Acute cholecystitis referred for CT were consecutively inducted into the study after receiving informed consent.
Hakala et al10 reported that a marked decrease in vascular filling of the gallbladder in the acalculous cholecystitis patients was observed when compared with the specimens of calculous cholecystitis patients.
The majority of the patients are asymptomatic, and approximately 20% of symptomatic patients present with acute cholecystitis (AC).1 Acute cholecystitis presents with episodic pain in the epigastrium or right upper quadrant (RUQ) of the abdomen.
Empyema of gallbladder is one of the complications of acute cholecystitis. It may be associated with calculus and acalculus cholecystitis or carcinoma.
Primary MA of the GB is a rare variant and unexpected histopathological finding in a cholecystectomy specimen examined for cholecystitis or cholelithiasis.
There is no increase of acute cholecystitis determined for the patients with situs inversus in literature.
Patients with acute cholecystitis, irrespective of duration of symptoms were managed by intravenous antibiotics and had a cholecystectomy on the next available operating list, which ranged from 24 hours to 96 hours post admission.
Unfortunately, GC and GA are often associated with gallstones and cholecystitis, which can justify the importance to clarify whether adenomyomatosis has malignant potential or not.