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Digestive health centre

Gallbladder pain: Causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

What is the gallbladder?

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.

Causes of gallbladder Pain

Although a person with a gallbladder problem may not have any symptoms, sometimes a problem can cause severe abdominal pain.

Medical conditions that can cause gallbladder pain are:

  • Biliary colic: An 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.

Gallbladder location and function

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.

Picture of Liver with Gallbladder

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, and 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.
  • Acute pancreatitis: Severe abdominal pain just below the ribs that builds up over a couple of days; it can radiate to the back and the abdomen will be tender. The pain increases after eating and there may be nausea and vomiting.
  • Cholangitis: Upper right abdominal discomfort at first, turning into abdominal pain that can be accompanied by fever and chills, itching and jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin). This condition needs emergency medical treatment.

You should seek medical advice immediately if you develop abdominal pain that lasts for more than 8 hours, or if the pain is so intense that you cannot find a position that provides relief, or if you have a high temperature or chills, or if there is jaundice.

WebMD Medical Reference

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