The gallbladder stores bile, a digestive fluid. It contracts after emptying as part of the digestive process, but other factors, such as gallstones, can cause it to collapse, leading to pain and other symptoms.

As a normal part of the digestive process, the gallbladder collapses or contracts after it empties.

However, the gallbladder sometimes shrinks because of an underlying condition. There are several possible causes of this, including gallstones.

This article explores the symptoms, causes, and treatment of an abnormally collapsed gallbladder.

a diagram depicting the gallbladder's placement near the liverShare on Pinterest
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The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped, muscular organ that sits beneath the liver on the right side of the body. It is part of a system that stores and releases bile, a liquid that the liver produces.

Bile is important for:

  • digesting fats
  • reducing cholesterol
  • enabling antimicrobial activity

The gallbladder will shrink and expand as part of its normal and healthy functioning. The gallbladder will fill with bile during fasting states, whereas during the digestive process, it will shrink after releasing bile into the small intestine.

As such, the appearance of a contracted gallbladder is typically normal, unless it accompanies other symptoms, such as inflammation. Additionally, health conditions may affect the gallbladder and result in collapse.

A contracted gallbladder does not always cause symptoms.

If it occurs due to silent gallstones, a person may not require treatment. Silent gallstones do not stop the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas from working.

However, in some cases, a collapsed gallbladder can cause discomfort and other symptoms, especially if it is due to gallstones or inflammation.

Common symptoms of a collapsed gallbladder include:

There are a few possible causes of a collapsed gallbladder. An abnormal collapse can cause the gallbladder to stop functioning correctly.

Often, the cause is gallstones, which are small, hard stones that form in the gallbladder. Most of the time, gallstones comprise cholesterol or bilirubin.

Gallstones can cause issues such as irritation, infection, and scarring. Over time, this can lead to complications that include inflammation, wall thickening, and gallbladder contraction. As the gallbladder contracts, it may push gallstones into the cystic or bile ducts, potentially forming a partial obstruction known as biliary colic. The blockage can cause swelling, irritation, and inflammation.

Another cause is chronic cholecystitis, a prolonged condition resulting from the dysfunction of the emptying of the gallbladder. It leads to a chronically contracted gallbladder, thick gallbladder walls, and gallstones. Chronic cholecystitis usually occurs when a gallstone obstructs the cystic duct, which is the duct that connects the gallbladder to the biliary tract.

Cholecystitis can also occur due to biliary sludge. Biliary sludge results from bile collecting in the biliary ducts.

A doctor can diagnose a collapsed gallbladder by carrying out a complete blood count. The doctor may use blood tests to look for signs of infection, bile duct obstruction, pancreatitis, or jaundice.

A medical professional can also inject a small amount of harmless radioactive material into the person. This is known as the hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid test. The gallbladder will absorb the injectable solution, and a doctor will stimulate the gallbladder to contract. This test may diagnose abnormal contractions of the gallbladder or obstruction of the bile duct.

Doctors can also use ultrasonography to make a diagnosis. It can be difficult to see the results if the body is undergoing digestion, as the gallbladder is not full of fluid at this stage. Due to this, the person having the ultrasound scan will need to fast beforehand.

Research from 2020 suggests that using advanced imaging techniques may help distinguish the difference between benign and malignant gallbladder conditions. These imaging techniques include:

  • contrast-enhanced ultrasound
  • high resolution ultrasound
  • diffusion-weighted imaging

In some cases, a collapsed gallbladder does not require treatment and will resolve on its own.

Treatment options include gallbladder removal surgery, which commonly involves a minimally invasive surgery called laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Less often, doctors perform an open cholecystectomy.

Learn what to expect from gallbladder removal.

If gallstones are responsible for the collapsed bladder, other treatment options include nonsurgical treatments to remove the gallstones, such as:

  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography: This treatment involves unblocking the bile duct by removing gallstones.
  • Oral dissolution therapy: Medications such as ursodiol (Actigall) and chenodiol (Chenix) are bile acids that can dissolve gallstones, although several months or years of treatment may be necessary. The medicines are most suitable for small cholesterol stones.
  • Shock wave lithotripsy: This procedure is a rare treatment option that involves breaking the gallstones into small bits.

Anyone requiring treatment for gallstones should consult a doctor first. There is currently no strong evidence to support the use of natural remedies to remove gallstones. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that some people have found the following natural options effective:

  • apple cider vinegar with apple juice
  • dandelion
  • milk thistle
  • Lysimachiae herba
  • artichoke
  • psyllium husk
  • castor oil pack
  • acupuncture
  • yoga

Typically, a collapsed gallbladder results from stone disease or some other obstruction, with gallstones being a common reason for inflammation in the gallbladder. Risk factors for cholelithiasis, which may cause a chronically collapsed gallbladder, include:

  • being female
  • having obesity
  • having had rapid weight loss
  • being pregnant
  • being over the age of 60 years
  • eating a diet high in fat

Additional risk factors for a collapsed gallbladder include:

  • family history of gallstones
  • birth control pills, such as levonorgestrel, may increase the risk of gallbladder disease
  • high dose estrogen therapy
  • hormone replacement therapy

A gallbladder contracting is a normal part of digestion, and it does not cause any serious symptoms.

However, people who experience pain or nausea due to a contracted gallbladder need to see a doctor, who can help determine the cause and create a treatment plan.

The gallbladder is a small digestive organ that expands and contracts during digestion as it stores and releases bile. Certain conditions, such as inflammation, gallstones, and cholecystitis, can cause chronic contraction.

People who experience symptoms such as nausea or pain in their upper right abdomen should talk with a healthcare professional. They can diagnose the issue and recommend an appropriate treatment plan.