Gallbladder dysfunction

Last revised by Ammar Ashraf on 29 Oct 2022

Gallbladder dysfunction, or functional gallbladder disorder, refers to biliary pain due to motility disturbance of the gallbladder without gallstones, biliary sludge, microlithiasis or microcrystals. The disorder has previous been known by several other names, including gallbladder dyskinesia, gallbladder dysmotility, and cystic duct syndrome.

An estimated 8% of men and 21% of women who report biliary pain have normal gallbladder ultrasound scans, and 20-25% of cholecystectomies performed in recent years have been for gallbladder dysfunction 3,4.

Patients commonly present with recurrent episodic biliary pain, typically described as right upper quadrant or epigastric pain that can radiate to the back or right shoulder. The pain can be associated with nausea, vomiting and sweating. Episodes typically last for between 30 minutes to six hours. An association with meals, particularly fatty meals, is common but not always a feature 1,2. There are usually normal results for common laboratory investigations for workup of biliary pain, including bilirubin, ALT, ALP, GGT, and lipase.

The underlying etiology of the disturbance to gallbladder motility is incompletely understood. Associations with obesity, other gastrointestinal tract motility disorders, and abnormalities of bile composition have been suggested 1,2.

Ultrasound is typically performed as the modality of choice for investigation of biliary pain. In gallbladder dysfunction, ultrasound examination of the gallbladder is usually normal, with no cholelithiasis, biliary sludge, thickened gallbladder wall or hyperemia.

Cholescintigraphy (HIDA) examination can assess the gallbladder ejection fraction by filling the gallbladder with radiotracer, then measuring the radioactivity as the gallbladder empties through the cystic duct. An ejection fraction of <33% (may be 35 to 40% depending on different protocols at different institutions) after 60 minutes is indicative of impaired gallbladder emptying and gallbladder dysfunction.

Cholecystectomy is the mainstay of treatment for gallbladder dysfunction, with patients generally considered suitable for surgery if they have a fitting clinical presentation, no appropriate alternative diagnosis and a low gallbladder ejection fraction on cholescintigraphy.

  • diagnosis of exclusion in patients with biliary pain; firstly exclude other causes
  • cholescintigraphy can confirm the diagnosis, with a low ejection fraction

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Cases and figures

  • Case 1: gallbladder dysfunction
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