Gallbladder Issues Mimicked My Pregnancy Symptoms

I Thought I Was Pregnant, But It Was This

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My tubes were tied in November of 2017, because after birthing five kids, I really was just done being pregnant. But that doesn’t mean I don’t vividly remember what it feels like to be pregnant. At exactly six weeks on the nose, I recall waking up absolutely starving but so incredibly nauseated with each baby. Around 3-4 a.m., the vomiting and retching would begin and didn’t end until my 27th (-ish) week of pregnancy.

Even then, I still had occasional bouts of vomiting. And although my non-pregnant self loves garlic, my growing-a-human-self hates even the slightest whiff of it. It sounds a bit cliche, but I could smell garlic in our household for days after we cooked with it throughout every single one of my pregnancies. Despite thorough bleaching, cleaning, and taking out the trash in the kitchen afterwards, it. Just. Kept. Lingering. 

In December of 2018, the wafting smell of garlic cloves awakened me from my sleep after it’d been cooked with the night before. My mouth began to water, and I was immediately hit with level 10 out of 10 nausea. In fact, for the first time since I was 9 years old, I was so nauseated that I was unable to make it to the toilet or trash can before hurling the goods all over my bedroom sheets, wall, and floor. 

My first thought was, I really hope I’m not pregnant. Since my tubal ligation, I don’t track my menstrual cycle, because there really is no need. My periods are so much lighter now than they’ve ever been, and I have a permanent form of birth control already. Still, I took a test the next day after puking for hours, and it couldn’t have been more negative. Praise f*cking be.

But when the vomiting persisted 10-15+ times a day every day for weeks after that, I still wasn’t convinced I wasn’t pregnant. It just felt so much like morning sickness and I couldn’t shake that fear. On more nights than not, I was making a bed in the bathtub during the middle of the night because it really was just easier to try and finish the night’s rest in there when my vomiting persisted so frequently.

I was depleted, exhausted, occasionally throwing up tablespoon amounts of blood with each retch and left with no motivation to work or parent. After two ER trips, it seemed the second ER physician on-call wasn’t fully convinced I wasn’t pregnant either. He gave me a urine pregnancy test, a blood pregnancy test, and a pelvic ultrasound to confirm, and nope. I was definitely not pregnant. But still feeling the morning sickness as if I was. 

An abdominal CT scan showed an inflamed gallbladder, so from there I was referred to a general surgeon who diagnosed me with biliary dyskinesia — a condition which negatively impacts the gallbladder’s ability to move bile properly or thoroughly. 

Laparoscopic gallbladder removal was recommended, and at this point, I would’ve done anything to stop the nausea, so I very much obliged to this minimally-invasive surgery. On my 7th day post-op, I was doing Zumba, and a week clear of vomiting … and I was definitely not pregnant.

Before my operation, I joined a private Facebook group for gallbladder issues and gallstones run by “The Gallbladder Guru,” Buddy Black, who almost lost his life due to gallstones. Now, he advocates for those stuck in the gray area when given a gallbladder disease or gallstone diagnosis.

“I am blown away [that] approximately 40 ladies a day join our group and most do not have a clue how they developed gallbladder issues or stones,” Black says.

Buddy Black/Gallbladder &Gallstone Support Group members graph

According to Gabriel Njeze, head of the Department of Surgery at Enugu State University of Technology Teaching Hospital in Enugu, Nigeria, “women during their fertile years are almost twice as likely as men to experience cholelithiasis [the formation of gallstones].”

Symptoms for gallbladder problems typically include:

– Pain in right shoulder and/or pain in the mid- or upper-right section of the abdomen, although some patients do report pain in their upper-left abdomen as well

– Nausea and vomiting

– Fever or shaking and chills

– Changes in bowel movements

– Changes in urine

– Jaundice

Most gallstones develop at a slow rate, sometimes taking up to 5 to 20 years to form. However, some are fast-growing, and researchers show women are more susceptible to painful gallstone formations and gallbladder disease due to the rise of HCG hormones and extra pressure on the damaged gallbladder as pregnancy progresses.

“Increased levels of the hormone estrogen, as a result of pregnancy or hormone therapy, or the use of combined (estrogen-containing) forms of hormonal contraception, may increase cholesterol levels in bile and also decrease gallbladder movement, resulting in gallstone formation,” Njeze says.

Krista Paap is a mother of two who was diagnosed with a low-functioning gallbladder without gallstones after the birth of her second child with a chief complaint of nausea. Like me, she went through multiple pregnancy tests, because her symptoms felt “exactly like morning sickness.”

“For the first two weeks following [my firstborn’s] birth, the nausea was constant,” Paap tells Scary Mommy. “It came and went until I was pregnant with my second. Then I just chalked [the nausea and vomiting] up to hormones.”

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This is terrifying, and it could be a slippery slope for physicians who blame extreme morning sickness as well as other aches and pains on the pregnancy because of its association. Although gallstones and gallbladder disease treatment can be, and usually is, postponed until after delivery, in extreme cases, there can be consequential effects on both mother and the baby if problems develop as a result of the gallstones or gallbladder (e.g. high fever, infection, clogged bile duct, constant vomiting). In all cases of faulty-gallbladder symptoms during pregnancy, early detection is key.

Dr. Herbert Hoover, general surgery specialist at Parkview Hospital in Huntington, Indiana, emphasizes the need for physicians and pregnant patients suffering from morning sickness to question whether it could be gallbladder-related.

“You have to be careful in pregnant women who do have morning sickness. You have to think that they could have gallbladder disease, because women do get gallbladder disease during pregnancy,” Hoover tells Scary Mommy. “That’s where it can get dangerous, because [doctors and patients] attribute [nausea and vomiting] to morning sickness and don’t do anything about it. It makes kind of a complex situation.” 

But if the morning sickness exceeds more than what one thinks it ought to, Hoover says it’s worth questioning, “Could this be my gallbladder?”

It seems the cards aren’t stacked in women’s favor when it comes to our gallbladders. With more and more patients coming forward during pregnancy, or during or shortly after their child-bearing years with complaints of pregnancy-like morning sickness, it makes us wonder, what don’t we know about the connection between the female anatomy and gallbladders today?