HISTORY. Cholecystitis often begins as a mild intolerance to fatty food. The patient experiences discomfort after a meal, sometimes with nausea and vomiting, flatulence, and an elevated temperature. Over a period of several months or even years, symptoms progressively become more severe. Ask the patient about the pattern of attacks; some mistake severe gallbladder attacks for a heart attack until they recall similar, less severe episodes that have preceded it. An acute attack of cholecystitis is often associated with gallstones, or cholelithiasis. The classic symptom is pain in the right upper quadrant that may radiate to the right scapula, called biliary colic. Onset is usually sudden, with the duration from less than 1 to more than 6 hours. If the flow of bile has become obstructed, the patient may pass clay-colored stools and dark urine.
PHYSICAL EXAM. The patient with an acute gallbladder attack appears acutely ill, is in a great deal of discomfort, and sometimes is jaundiced. A low-grade fever is often present, especially if the disease is chronic and the walls of the gallbladder have become infected. Right upper quadrant pain is intense in acute attacks and requires no physical examination. It is often followed by residual aching or soreness for up to 24 hours. A positive Murphy's sign, which is positive palpation of a distended gallbladder during inhalation, may confirm a diagnosis.
PSYCHOSOCIAL. The patient with an acute attack of cholelithiasis may be in extreme pain and very upset. The experience may be complicated by guilt if the patient has been advised by the physician in the past to cut down on fatty foods and lose weight. The attack may also be very frightening if it is confused with a heart attack.
|Test||Normal Result||Abnormality with Condition||Explanation|
|White blood cell (WBC) count ||Adult males and females 4,50011,000/µL||Infection and inflammation elevate the WBC count||Leukocytosis; WBCs range from 12,000 to 15,000/µL; if > 20,000, the condition may be associated with gangrene or perforation|
|Ultrasound scan||Normal gallbladder||Gallbladder wall thickening, pericholecystic fluid collections||Sensitive/specific test for cholelithiasis; identifies presence of fluid collection|
Biliary scintigraphy such as hydroxy iminodiacetic acid (HIDA) scan can show nonfilling of the gallbladder; biliary scintigraphy and ultrasound are the diagnostic tests most commonly used. HIDA scans have sensitivity of greater than 94% and specificity 65% to 85% for acute cholecystitis. Supporting tests include phosphatase, aspartate amino transferase, lactate dehydrogenase, alkaline phosphatase, serum amylase, and serum bilirubin levels; oral cholecystogram; and computed tomography. An intravenous cholangiogram may be used to differentiate cholelithiasis from other causes of extrahepatic obstruction.
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