Although a person with a gallbladder problem may not have any symptoms, sometimes a problem can cause severe abdominal pain.
The gallbladder is basically a pear-shaped pouch for storing bile (a liquid made by the liver to help digest fatty foods). However, if one of the bile ducts – the tubes that transport bile from the liver to the gallbladder and also from the gallbladder to the digestive tract – gets blocked with sludge or gallstones or is infected or inflamed, the person can experience pain. The conditions that are associated with gallbladder pain are:
- Biliary colic – intermittent blockage of a duct from gallstones or bile sludge (sometimes referred to as uncomplicated gallstone disease)
- Acute cholecystitis – inflammation of gallbladder tissue
- Acute pancreatitis – sometimes linked to gallstones formed in the gallbladder blocking the pancreatic duct (which merges with one of the bile ducts), causing inflammation of the pancreas
- Cholangitis – an infection of the bile ducts
Picture of the gallbladder
The gallbladder is a small pouch that sits just under the liver. The gallbladder stores bile produced by the liver. After meals, the gallbladder is empty and flat, like a deflated balloon. Before a meal, the gallbladder may be full of bile and about the size of a small pear.
In response to signals, the gallbladder squeezes stored bile into the small intestine through a series of tubes called ducts. Bile helps digest fats, but the gallbladder itself is not essential. Removing the gallbladder in an otherwise healthy individual typically causes no observable problems with health or digestion, yet there may be a small risk of diarrhoea and fat malabsorption.
Gallbladder pain symptoms
The type of gallbladder pain will depend on the cause and may be accompanied by other symptoms.
Biliary colic: The pain is often sudden and increases rapidly in the upper abdomen, usually just under the right side of the ribs but also in the centre; it can spread to the right shoulder blade. It can occur at any time, day or night, and typically lasts from 1 to 5 hours, but it could last for just a few minutes. It may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, and a mild ache may last for a day. There can be weeks or months between attacks or only one attack. Eating fatty foods can sometimes trigger an attack.
Acute cholecystitis: The pain is severe and steady, lasting longer than biliary colic; it occurs in the right abdominal area and can spread towards the right shoulder. Pain is made worse by moving or coughing. The abdomen will be tender if touched or pressed, and the pain may occur with nausea, vomiting, fever, chills and bloating. (If these symptoms occur without the presence of gallstones but as a complication of trauma, it is known as acalculous cholecystitis.)