Gallbladder Pain: Symptoms and Causes

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It can be frightening to experience severe or intermittent upper abdominal pain. Can it be from your gallbladder? This overview of the symptoms of gallbladder disease can help you to figure out what might be going wrong and help you to decide if you need immediate medical attention. Remember, that if in doubt, it is better to err on the side of caution and get your concerns addressed by a qualified medical professional.

Note: This article discusses gallbladder pain. If you are not sure if your pain is from your gallbladder or your heart, please read the following:

Gallbladder Pain Locations 

Your gallbladder is located in your upper abdomen, below your chest, on the right side just under your rib cage. Pain from gallbladder problems, sometimes referred to as a "gallbladder attack", may be fleeting or continue for several hours. Such attacks are more likely to happen several hours after you have eaten a heavy meal. They are also more likely to occur in the evening or at night, waking you up from sleep. The following symptoms are associated with gallbladder problems:

  • Steady pain in the right side of your upper abdomen, close to your rib cage.
  • Pain under or behind your sternum.
  • Pain that radiates to your upper back.
  • Pain between your shoulder blades.

You may experience symptoms of nausea and you may vomit.

Unlike pain from gas, pain from a gallbladder attack typically is not relieved by changing position or burping or farting. Over-the-counter pain relievers may do little to diminish the pain. Heartburn or acid reflux are not symptoms of gallbladder problems.

Keep in mind that other things besides gallbladder disease can cause similar symptoms.

Some other possibilities include kidney, musculoskeletal, and gastric/peptic issues.

When to Get Help

If you think you have had a gallbladder attack, you should inform your physician as soon as possible, even if your symptoms have gone away. Your doctor will want to make sure that you are not experiencing a problem that will put you at risk for more severe disease. You should get immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Severe, intense pain that prevents you from getting comfortable.
  • Pain that increases when you take a breath.
  • Pain that lasts for more than five hours.
  • Jaundice symptoms of yellow skin or yellow around the whites of your eyes.
  • Fever and chills.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Persistent vomiting.
  • Dark or tea-colored urine.
  • Light-colored stool.

Further Reading:

Causes of Gallbladder Problems

The following health problems may all cause symptoms of pain in your gallbladder:

1. Gallstones

Gallstones are hard particles that form due to either an imbalance of the substances that make up bile (the fluid that the gallbladder secretes to aid in the digestion of food),​or the gallbladder not emptying as it should.

These particles can be quite small or grow to the size of a golf ball. Typically the formation of gallstones happens very slowly. A person may develop one large stone, multiple small stones, or a mix of the two. It is entirely possible to have gallstones and not have any symptoms. Such stones are considered benign because they do not interfere with the functioning of your digestive system.

Pain occurs when a gallstone blocks one of the ducts in the biliary tract - the part of your body that contains your gallbladder and your bile ducts. The pain may ease when the gallstone moves and the bile duct is no longer blocked. More serious problems can occur if the duct is blocked for too long. The gallbladder, the liver and/or the pancreas may become inflamed and infected, posing a great risk to your health. Although a worsening of such symptoms can be life-threatening, fortunately, such serious problems are rare.

2. Acalculous Gallbladder Disease

Acalculous gallbladder disease is a technical name for gallbladder disease without the presence of any gallstones. Symptoms may come on suddenly or occur chronically. Causes of acalculous gallbladder disease include the presence of microscopic stones, stones that have already passed, problems with the way the gallbladder empties, or problems in the functioning of the Sphincter of Oddi.

3. Cancer

Gallbladder cancer does not cause typical gallbladder attack symptoms. And it may be reassuring to know that gallbladder cancer is very rare. Having repeated problems with gallstones does raise your risk, but even so, the odds are such that you will not get cancer. Gallbladder cancer is typically not diagnosed until it is fairly advanced. Symptoms of gallbladder cancer include anemia, weight loss, ​and chronic vomiting.

Preventing Gallstones

The experience of a gallbladder attack should be a wake-up call for you in terms of focusing on your health. Be sure to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet. Keep your weight low, but try to avoid rapid weight loss. Be sure to eat plenty of vegetables, fruit, complex carbohydrates, and lean protein. Avoid foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol. If you are on a cholesterol medication or hormone replacement therapy, speak with your doctor to find out if these medications have increased your risk for the development of gallstones.

Sources

"Gallstones" Mayo Clinic Website

"Gallstones" National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)

"Gallstones and Gallbladder Disease" University of Maryland Medical Center

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