Gallbladder Pain

Signs and Symptoms of Gallbladder Problems

Gallbladder Pain in the Abdomen.

Gallbladder pain, commonly known as a gallbladder attack, can range from moderate to severe in nature and may lead to the surgical removal of the gallbladder to prevent further symptoms. The type of pain varies depending on the cause of the problem, as there are multiple reasons why gallbladder pain may be present.

What Does the Gallbladder Do?

To understand issues with the gallbladder, it is important to know what the gallbladder does.

The gallbladder’s primary function is to store and secrete bile, a liquid that is created by the liver and is used to help digest food. After eating, food moves through the stomach, then into the intestines where the gallbladder releases bile. The bile then helps to break down the partially digested food so the body can absorb and use the nutrients as energy.

2 Common Types of Gallbladder Issues

Cholecystitis and biliary colic are the two most common causes of gallbladder pain. Cholecystitis is the medical term for an inflamed gallbladder. This means the gallbladder is irritated, potentially infected, and very sensitive. The inflamed gallbladder becomes very sensitive to movement, whether it is caused by the secretion of bile or by normal daily activities such as bending over.

Biliary colic is the term used for a gallbladder issue caused by a sudden blockage that prevents the gallbladder from secreting bile.

The most common cause of biliary colic is the presence of one or more gallstones that lodge in the duct through which bile moves. The gallstone acts as a cork, preventing or reducing the movement of bile, and causing the bile to build up in the gallbladder. This pressure then results in significant pain.

Cholecystitis Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of gallbladder pain differ depending on the cause of the problem. A person with cholecystitis, which is often caused by a bacterial infection, will have moderate, constant pain during an episode and may also have a fever.

The pain of cholecystitis is typically worse with high impact movement, such as jumping up and down, but otherwise does not typically change notably during the course of an episode. Lying flat and still may improve the pain as this helps prevent movement that is irritating to the gallbladder.

Biliary Colic Signs and Symptoms 

A person with biliary colic will have nausea that may or may not lead to vomiting, the urge to belch may also be present. There may also be a change in bathroom habits and a bloated feeling in the abdomen.  

The pain caused by biliary colic is usually felt most acutely in the upper abdomen. It is often severe and increases and decreases several times during an episode. For some, the pain can result in heavy sweating and a feeling of shortness of breath/lightheadedness.

The pain does not typically change with movement. Biliary colic may be present after a meal or even hours later, some patients experience pain that wakes them from a sound sleep, many hours after a meal.

General Signs and Symptoms of Gallbladder Problems

Some gallbladder attacks produce symptoms that are nearly identical to the symptoms experienced during a heart attack. DO NOT assume that you are having a gallbladder attack until a medical provider is able to determine a clear diagnosis of gallbladder issues.

While gallbladder issues often cause abdominal pain, particularly in the upper abdomen where the gallbladder is located, it can also cause pain in an unrelated location. This type of pain, called referred pain, is felt in the right shoulder area. Referred pain is rarely as severe as the abdominal pain that may be present.

Gallbladder pain typically lasts from twenty minutes to several hours.

Not all gallstones cause pain, some may pass painlessly while others cause significant pain. The presence of gallstones does not guarantee future gallbladder attacks.

Some people may need surgery to remove the gallbladder.


Gallbladder Diseases. Medline Plus. Accessed August, 2014.

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