What Is Gallbladder Sludge?

Gallbladder sludge is a buildup of particles and mucus which can occur in the gallbladder over time. In some people, the appearance of gallbladder sludge causes no health problems, while others may experience complications, and in some cases, the sludge contributes to the development of gallstones. Patients who do experience symptoms as a result of the sludge buildup may be asked to consider a cholecystectomy, a surgical procedure in which the gallbladder is removed, to prevent the onset of more serious symptoms.

The gallbladder is an organ nestled just below the liver. The liver secretes bile which flows into the gallbladder and becomes concentrated. After a meal, the gallbladder pushes the concentrated bile into the digestive tract to help the body digest. The bile is key in the digestion of fats, but it also contributes to the digestion of other food components.

In some individuals, as the bile becomes concentrated, gallbladder sludge also builds up. The sludge classically includes particles of sodium, calcium, and cholesterol crystals, and it may include other particulate matter as well. Individuals who experience rapid weight loss are more prone to developing sludge, as are pregnant women and people taking certain medications.

If the sludge becomes a problem, the patient will experience abdominal pain in the upper right quadrant. He or she may also experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and the symptoms may grow progressively worse over time. The gallbladder sludge can show up in tests and medical imaging studies, and a doctor can decide what the best approach to treatment might be. Often, the recommendation is cholecystectomy to take the gallbladder out altogether, thereby neatly bypassing the problem.

People may also hear gallbladder sludge referred to as biliary sludge. Some doctors may recommend dietary measures to manage the sludge, or medications which can help to break up the sludge and allow it to pass through the bile duct. In patients for whom cholecystectomy is not recommended, a doctor may request regular follow-up visits to monitor the health of the gallbladder and to confirm that the sludge is not developing into a problem.

Patients may want to be aware that sometimes it takes time to pin down gallbladder sludge as the source of a problem. Abdominal pain can be caused by a number of medical problems, and doctors will want to take the time to make sure that the diagnosis is accurate and the treatment is appropriate.