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Discover the vital role of the gallbladder in digestion and uncover effective ways to maintain its health for optimal well-being.

USMLE Guide: Gallbladder


The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ located beneath the liver. It plays a crucial role in the digestive system by storing and concentrating bile, a substance produced by the liver that helps in the digestion of fats. Understanding the structure, function, and related clinical conditions of the gallbladder is essential for medical students preparing for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the gallbladder, focusing on relevant topics for USMLE preparation.

Anatomy and Physiology


  • The gallbladder is approximately 7-10 cm long and 3-4 cm wide, with a capacity of 30-50 mL.
  • It is divided into three main parts: the fundus, body, and neck.
  • The cystic duct connects the gallbladder to the common bile duct, forming the bile duct system.


  • The primary function of the gallbladder is the storage and concentration of bile, which aids in the digestion and absorption of fats.
  • When fatty foods enter the duodenum, the gallbladder contracts, releasing bile into the common bile duct and eventually into the small intestine.
  • Bile helps emulsify fats, making them more accessible to digestive enzymes, and aids in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

Clinical Conditions


  • Cholecystitis is the inflammation of the gallbladder, often caused by gallstones obstructing the cystic duct.
  • Symptoms include severe right upper quadrant abdominal pain, fever, nausea, and vomiting.
  • USMLE focus: Diagnosis is typically confirmed by ultrasound, which may reveal gallstones or thickening of the gallbladder wall. Treatment may involve gallbladder removal (cholecystectomy).

Gallstones (Cholelithiasis)

  • Gallstones are solid deposits that form within the gallbladder.
  • They can be asymptomatic or cause symptoms such as right upper quadrant abdominal pain, bloating, and indigestion.
  • USMLE focus: Ultrasound is the diagnostic modality of choice. Treatment varies but may involve surgical removal of the gallbladder.


  • Choledocholithiasis refers to the presence of gallstones within the common bile duct.
  • It can cause symptoms similar to cholecystitis, such as abdominal pain and jaundice.
  • USMLE focus: Diagnosis is often made via ultrasound or magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP). Treatment may involve endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) to remove the stones.

Biliary Colic

  • biliary colic is characterized by intermittent, severe pain due to temporary obstruction of the cystic duct by gallstones.
  • Pain typically occurs after meals and lasts for several hours.
  • USMLE focus: Diagnosis is made clinically based on characteristic symptoms and may be confirmed with ultrasound. Treatment may involve pain management and addressing underlying gallstone issues.


Understanding the anatomy, physiology, and clinical conditions of the gallbladder is vital for success in the USMLE. Mastery of topics such as cholecystitis, gallstones, choledocholithiasis, and biliary colic will enable medical students to diagnose and manage gallbladder-related disorders effectively. By utilizing this USMLE guide, students can enhance their knowledge and confidently approach questions related to the gallbladder on the exam.

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