I have lived almost my whole life struggling with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and have also had my gallbladder removed (at age 22). I have referenced my stomach issues before, but today I’m sharing the long version, in hopes of helping anyone dealing with similar issues. I am not a doctor, but am simply sharing my story and true experiences.
Living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (and Without a Gallbladder)
How It All Began
When I was around six or seven years old, my stomach began to hurt on a daily basis. It was a dull ache, but it was never “normal”. Additionally, I would have episodes where my stomach would hurt so bad that I couldn’t breathe. It physically hurt to take a breath. It hurt to talk. The pain was utterly excruciating. It was (and is) like a strong burning sensation; almost like I can feel something moving through my digestive system. Sometimes, it was so bad, that to take my mind off of the stomach pain, I would scratch my thighs with my nails. It would often get to the point that I would leave the restroom with such horrible leg scratches that you’d think I’d been attacked by an animal. I now know that causing pain to one part of the body doesn’t take away from the other… six year old me didn’t know any better!
In addition to these episodes, I had other instances (and still do) where the pain was sharp. It would cause my stomach to feel bloated like a balloon (although it didn’t look like it), and would shoot to my ribs. It hurt to stand up straight, so I’d walk keeled over. The only thing that made it feel better, was to lie down.
Both of these episodes occurred on a regular basis, but on a sporadic, regular basis. I never knew when it would happen. No type of food would upset my stomach every time I consumed it. Some nights I could have some ice cream and be perfectly fine, and other nights I would end up gripping my quad and gasping for air in pain.
So began my life with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
At the time, me nor my parents had any idea what was going on.
It wasn’t until we moved from Tennessee to Florida that we got some answers. I had been complaining, daily, of stomach pains. They kept me up at night. These pains were dull, but they were uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, that they were unbearable (if that makes sense). This was all on top of the sporadic yet regularly occurring painful episodes I was experiencing. I was known among my friends for being the one with the stomach issues. It’d gotten bad.
My mom took me in to see my pediatrician, who sent me to the hospital for testing. I was in the hospital for almost a week getting every test done under the sun.
The final diagnosis? Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Also known as, your stomach hates you and we can’t find any answers so let’s call it IBS.
I was sad to hear that this was something I had to live with, but was relieved to have an answer, and to be given some medication (that ended up doing nothing).
When I was younger, the IBS was bad. I mean, really bad. However, as I’ve gotten older, it has significantly improved. I believe a lot of it has to do with stress, hormones, and of course, diet and exercise. However, I do still experience sporadic episodes. Usually, of course, at the worst times. Like, at the airport right before a flight boards (this happened) or at a boyfriends house (yup). Hi, Christian!
So, IBS improves. Yay! All fine and dandy, until my senior year of college…
Let me give you the back story.
The Gallbladder Chronicles
I have insane period cramps. Horrible PMS two weeks before that time of the month. Yadda yadda, you know the deal. So, while I was a junior in college, I went to a gynecologist in Gainesville who prescribed me birth control to help with these issues. The first pill she prescribed me made me go literally insane. I was a raging biatch, felt depressed, and would randomly spend hours in my room crying. I am not kidding – birth control is no joke!
I went back to her, complaining of the crazy, and she prescribed a different pill. This time, no crazy.
However, it left me with a little bit of stomach discomfort. Not much, and I’d assumed it was my body getting acclimated to the pill, so I ignored it. Soon, it pretty much subsided. I felt okay, and had gotten used to the pill. Until I wasn’t.
The Fall semester of my senior year, I was laying in bed at my apartment about to get up and go to my internship. All of a sudden, a sharp, severe pain appeared in my upper, right rib cage that shot to my back. My stomach blew up like a balloon, and no position I laid in could make it go away. This pain was so bad, I was rolling around in my bed crying. I emailed the company I was interning for and let them know what was going on. The pain lasted about three hours.
After this episode, I was fine. Then, two weeks later, it happened again. And again, lasted for about three hours.
A few more times, and I finally saw a doctor in town. To make this story short, I saw my gynecologist (asking if the birth control had anything to do with this), saw a general practitioner a few times, and finally, a gastroenterologist. The gastroenterologist listened to my list of symptoms, and hinted at the idea of gallbladder dysfunction or gallstones.
The testing began.
Countless Tests, Zero Answers
First, I went in for a hepatobiliary scan which tests your gallbladder function. During the scan, the technician injects you with a radioactive tracer that flows through your gallbladder. Everything was fine, I felt okay, until that tracer was sent through my system. Immediately, like the flick of a switch, I felt painfully sick. I thought I was going to vomit, while simultaneously feeling like I was about to faint. It was awful. I asked the technician if this was normal, and they said yes.
Next up were the colonoscopy (don’t get me started on that preparation), endoscopy, gastric emptying test (also known as the egg and toast test), and a few others. Additionally, I was told to try the GERDdiet, the FODMAP diet, and was given Omeprazole (Prilosec) to take regularly. None of these did the trick. Additionally, I should mention – I saw absolutely no pattern between the pain and my diet. It was completely random, just like my IBS.
After two months of doctor visits, two ER visits, and countless tests, every single test came out negative. Every time I received my test results, I was told that nothing was wrong with me. Or that I was probably just “stressed”.
I was convinced that something was up, despite the test results. I began researching (probably not the best idea). Every single thing that I was feeling, was the definition of gallbladder dysfunction, to the T. I didn’t know what to do – nothing is more frustrating than being in excruciating pain and having technology tell you nothing is wrong.
Finally, one night I was hanging out at Christian’s, and the pain came back. This time, it was worse than it had ever been. I cannot put into words how bad it was. I was bawling, sobbing in pain. Poor Christian didn’t know what to do. I called my mom, as one does, and her and my father offered to drive up to Gainesville the next day and take me to the GI. Lucky girl, I am.
We marched into the doctor’s office, and I told him all about the episode I’d had the night before. He asked me to back track with my symptoms and all of the tests I’d taken. We went over and over, detailing everything. At one point, I said “I’m not sure if this matters, but during my HP Scan (hipatobiliary scan), when they injected the CCK tracer, I immediately felt nauseous, weak, and faint.”
“You did?! That gallbladder is coming out!” he said.
Remember when I’d asked the medical technician if the way I felt was normal upon being injected? Yeah… it’s not. Apparently, that is a tell-tale sign that your gallbladder is dysfunctional, and needs to be removed.
As you could have guessed, I made an appointment for an outpatient procedure, and had my gallbladder laparoscopically removed.
Thank God for Christian during this process. He was my rock! He even kept me busy during recovery, taking me to the movies and to make pottery!
Gallbladder surgery is described as a routine surgery, but let me tell you, recovery was miserable. Despite it being a laparoscopic surgery (two baby incisions: one above your belly button, and one on the bottom right of your abdomen), it was really difficult to deal with post-op. During laparoscopic surgery, they fill your abdomen with CO2, which gives you horrible gas pains afterwards. I would wake up in the middle of the night with severe pain in my shoulders from the CO2. It hurt to laugh, to walk, to stand up straight. The stuff they don’t tell ya, people.
Why Did This Happen?
So, where does birth control come into play?
While all of this craziness was going on, my father was in constant communication with his brother, who is a doctor. Without having any idea that I was on the pill, he asked my dad “is she by any chance taking birth control? Gallbladder dysfunction is a possible side effect of the pill. It’s rare, but it’s possible.” Gallbladder dysfunction is very rare in people my age and build, so he was thinking outside the box as to why this was happening.
To this day, I am convinced that I was one of the 2% of people that experience gallbladder disorder as a side effect of the pill.
And, funny story… At the end of last year, I visited my local OBGYN to request a low dose BC pill to help with my cramps while I was training for a half marathon. I explained to her my fears of getting back on the pill, and asked her to please put me on the lowest dose possible.
She’d asked me how large of a dose I’d been on with my last pill, which I wasn’t sure of. She went and retrieved my file, only to see that I had been taking 35mg. “35mg?! It’s rare to give someone over 20!” she exclaimed. I’m obviously not a doctor, but I have a feeling that that high of a dose could have had something to do with it…
Another funny story… The biopsy of my gallbladder showed no signs of dysfunction. #missionimpossible
The End Result
While my gallbladder seemed to have no issue, the painful episodes I was experiencing are gone.
However, having no gallbladder is no walk in the park when it’s combined with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, at least for me. Your gallbladder stores bile that is produced by your liver, which helps digest fats. As a result of me not having mine, my body does not digest fats well. In fact, when I eat anything fried, or with butter, or just generally unhealthy fats (I can eat olive oil, coconut oil, peanut butter, and generally healthy fats just fine), the miserable stomach aches I experienced when I was younger come back.
With all of that said, I’ve learned how to form a diet and lifestyle around this. I eat mostly whole foods, I stay away from dairy, I don’t eat anything like full-fat cream, butter, fried foods (okay, sometimes I slip up… because Chic-fil-A waffle fries), and have learned to navigate my way around food. I still eat what I enjoy, and trust me, at times I eat thingds that I know may upset my stomach because #YOLO, but overall, I’ve made it a habit to stay away from a list of foods.
Living with IBS on a daily basis comes with a combination of things, one being bloating. Lots and lots of bloating. I’ve learned to live with it, but as someone who once dealt with orthorexia and body image issues, it can be pretty difficult to look in the mirror and not be frustrated. No matter how hard I try, the bloat seems to linger. I have found ways to aid this issue (drinking lots of water helps!), and have tried everything (seriously, everything)… I’ve just got to accept it! *shrug*
This might sound weird, but dealing with these issues for so long has truly made me stronger. I believe in that phrase, “pain is just weakness leaving the body” – I have learned to work through pain, and it has made me mentally stronger, as well. It can often feel like the current state you’re in is never going to leave, but talking yourself through the pain can make a world of a difference. To anyone reading this dealing with the same issues, I salute you. Maybe we should start a club or something.
Join the conversation
If you are a fellow IBSer, or just generally live with digestive issues, I’d love to hear from you! What has your experience been? What have you found causes your discomfort, and how have you worked your way around it?