Pain is the most common symptom of a gallbladder problem. It can be mild and intermittent or quite severe and frequent. It may begin to radiate to other areas of the body, including the back and chest.
This pain will often be accompanied by other symptoms. Read on to learn more about the gallbladder and how to identify a problem.
Your gallbladder is a 4-inch, pear-shaped organ. It’s positioned under your liver in the upper-right section of your abdomen.
The gallbladder stores bile, a combination of fluids, fat, and cholesterol. Bile helps break down fat from food in your intestine. The gallbladder delivers bile into the small intestine. This allows fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients to be more easily absorbed into the bloodstream.
Gallbladder conditions share similar symptoms. These include:
- Pain. It usually occurs in the mid to upper-right section of your abdomen.
- Nausea or vomiting. Chronic gallbladder disease may cause digestive problems, such as acid reflux and gas.
- Fever or chills. This may be a sign of infection and should be treated immediately.
- Chronic diarrhea. Defined as more than four bowel movements per day for at least 3 months.
- Jaundice. Marked by yellow-tinted skin, it may be a sign of a block or stone in the common bile duct.
- Stool abnormality. Lighter-colored stools is a possible sign of a common bile duct block.
- Discolored urine. Dark urine is a potential sign of a common bile duct block.
Any disease that affects your gallbladder is considered a gallbladder disease. The following conditions are all gallbladder diseases.
- Inflammation of the gallbladder. This is called cholecystitis. It can be either acute (short term), or chronic (long term).
- Common bile duct infection. An infection may develop if the common bile duct is obstructed.
- Gallbladder polyps. These are abnormal tissue growths that may be benign. Larger polyps may need to be surgically removed before they develop into cancer or cause other problems.
- Porcelain gallbladder. This is when calcium deposits stiffen the gallbladder walls and make them rigid.
- Gallbladder cancer. Although rare, if not detected and treated, this cancer can spread quickly.
- Gallstones. These are small, hardened deposits that form in the gallbladder. They can cause acute cholecystitis. More on gallstones and their complications below.
Gallstones are small, hardened deposits that form in the gallbladder. These deposits can develop and go undetected for years.
In fact, many people have gallstones and aren’t aware of them. They eventually cause problems, including inflammation, infection, and pain.
Other gallbladder problems or complications related to gallstones include:
- common bile duct stones
- abscess of the gallbladder
- gallstone ileus
- perforated gallbladder
Gallstones are usually very small, no more than a few millimeters wide. However, they can grow to several centimeters. Some people develop only one gallstone, while others develop several. As the gallstones grow in size, they can begin to block the channels that lead out of the gallbladder.
Most gallstones are formed from cholesterol found in the gallbladder’s bile. Another type of gallstone, a pigment stone, is formed from calcium bilirubinate. Calcium bilirubinate is a chemical that’s produced when the body breaks down red blood cells. This type of stone is rarer.
Explore this interactive 3-D diagram to learn more about the gallbladder and gallstones.
Common bile duct stones (choledocholithiasis)
When gallstones occur in the common bile duct, it’s known as choledocholithiasis. Bile is ejected from the gallbladder, passed through small tubes, and deposited in the common bile duct. It then enters the small intestine.
In most cases, common bile duct stones are actually gallstones that developed in the gallbladder and then passed into the bile duct. This type of stone is called a secondary common bile duct stone, or secondary stone.
Sometimes stones form in the common bile duct itself. These stones are called primary common bile duct stones, or primary stones. This rare type of stone is more likely to cause an infection than a secondary stone.
Abscess of the gallbladder
A small percentage of people with gallstones may also develop pus in the gallbladder. This condition is called empyema.
Pus is a combination of white blood cells, bacteria, and dead tissue. The development of pus, also known as an abscess, leads to severe abdominal pain. If empyema isn’t diagnosed and treated, it can become life threatening as the infection spreads to other parts of the body.
A gallstone may travel into the intestine and block it. This condition, known as gallstone ileus, is rare but can be fatal. It’s most common among individuals who are over 65 years old.
If you wait too long to seek treatment, gallstones can lead to a perforated gallbladder. This is a life threatening condition. If the tear isn’t detected, a dangerous, widespread abdominal infection may develop.
Gallstones don’t cause every type of gallbladder problem. Gallbladder disease without stones, also called acalculous gallbladder disease, can occur. In this case, you may experience symptoms commonly associated with gallstones without actually having stones.
First, your doctor will talk with you about your medical history, symptoms, and family history. A physical exam is performed to locate pain in the abdomen. Your doctor may also ask about your diet and nutrition before doing a blood test.
Results from a
Imaging tests are typically used to identify gallstones in your gallbladder. There are several types of image tests:
- Ultrasound. This test is considered the best imaging test for finding gallstones. Often doctors find “silent,” or gallstones that do not cause symptoms in this image test.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan. This combination of X-rays and technology can show gallstones as well as reveal complications such as blockage of the gallbladder or bile ducts.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This test shows detailed images of your body’s organs and can show gallstones in your
biliary tract ducts.
- Cholescintigraphy. Taking pictures of the biliary tract, this image scan can show gallbladder abnormalities and blockages in the bile ducts.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This more invasive procedure is often used to address an existing problem, such as a gallstone stuck in the common bile duct.
Once your doctor has performed any necessary tests, they can then try to make a diagnosis, followed by a recommended course of treatment.
If your doctor discovers gallstones in your gallbladder, you might have gallbladder removal surgery. Although gallbladder removal surgery is safe, there are always risks with any surgery. It’s important to speak openly with your doctor about:
- the surgery
- typical recovery
- potential complications
Following removal of your gallbladder via surgery, it’s possible you may develop an infection. Pain, swelling and redness, along with pus at the incision may require antibiotics.
Bile leakage is extremely rare — only 1 percent of people who have gallbladder removal surgery experience this complication.
Injuries to the bile duct, intestine, bowel, or blood vessels are other possible complications that may require additional surgery to fix.
Gallbladder removal surgery isn’t the only way to treat a gallbladder problem. Depending on your issue and diagnosis, treatment may include:
- over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Aleve, Motrin)
lithotripsy, a procedure that uses shock waves to break apart gallstones and other masses
- oral dissolution therapy, though it does not have a high success rate
- surgery to remove gallstones
Not all cases will require medical treatment. You may also be able to find pain relief with natural remedies, such as exercise and a heated compress.
If you’re experiencing gallbladder problems, you may find it beneficial to adjust your diet. In addition, if you have gallbladder removal surgery, your doctor may advise dietary changes both before (pre-op) and after surgery (post-op).
Foods that may aggravate gallbladder disease include:
- foods high in trans fats and other unhealthy fats
- highly processed foods
- refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and sugar
Instead, try to build your diet around:
- fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
- calcium-rich foods, such as low fat dairy and dark leafy greens
- foods containing vitamin C, such as berries
- plant-based protein, such as tofu, beans, and lentils
- healthy fats, such as nuts and fish
- coffee, which
reduces your riskof gallstones and other gallbladder diseases
Symptoms of a gallbladder problem may come and go. However, you’re more likely to develop a gallbladder problem if you’ve had one before.
While gallbladder problems are rarely deadly, they should still be treated. You can prevent gallbladder problems from worsening if you take action and see a doctor. Symptoms that should prompt you to seek immediate medical attention include:
- abdominal pain that lasts at least 5 hours
- pale stools
- sweating, low-grade fever, or chills, if they’re accompanied by the above symptoms
The most common indication that you may be experiencing a problem with your gallbladder is pain in the mid to upper-right section of your abdomen.
Gallstones may be responsible for the pain, and depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may recommend gallbladder removal surgery if imaging tests reveal the presence of these small, hardened deposits.