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.
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 indicate infection and should be treated immediately.
- Chronic diarrhea: Defined as loose or watery stools that occur more than
three or moretimes per day and last for 4 weeks or more.
- Jaundice: Marked by yellow-tinted skin, it may be a symptom of a block or stone in the common bile duct.
- Stool abnormality: Lighter-colored stool is a possible symptom of a common bile duct block.
- Discolored urine: Dark urine is a potential symptom of a common bile duct block.
Any disease that affects your gallbladder is considered a gallbladder disease. Some of these gallbladder problems, such as gallstones, are interconnected, and having one can, in time, cause or increase the risk of developing another.
Gallbladder disease without stones, also called acalculous gallbladder disease, can occur. In this case, you may experience symptoms commonly associated with gallstones without having stones.
The following conditions are all gallbladder diseases.
Chronic cholecystitis refers to repeated attacks of gallbladder inflammation that can last or repeat for
- buildup of cholesterol in the gallbladder, such as during pregnancy or following rapid weight loss
- decreased blood supply to the gallbladder due to diabetes
- tumors in the liver, pancreas, or gallbladder
Porcelain gallbladder occurs when calcium deposits stiffen the gallbladder walls, making them rigid.
This may be more likely to occur if you’ve experienced chronic gallbladder inflammation. Some types of calcification
Common bile duct infection
- bile duct inflammation
- trauma or injury
- an abnormal narrowing of the duct
- enlarged lymph nodes
- tumors that have reached the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, or bile ducts
- infections, including hepatitis
- liver damage, including scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)
Gallstones are small, hardened deposits that form in the gallbladder. These deposits can develop and go undetected for years.
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 can grow to several centimeters. Some people develop only one gallstone, while others develop several. As the gallstones grow, they can 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 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 gallstones that develop in the gallbladder and then pass into the bile duct. This type of stone is called a secondary common bile duct stone.
Sometimes stones form in the common bile duct itself. These stones are called primary common bile duct stones. This rare type of stone is more likely to cause an infection than a secondary stone.
Abscess of the gallbladder
Pus is a combination of white blood cells, bacteria, and dead tissue. The development of pus, also known as an abscess, causes 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, called gallstone ileus, is rare but can be fatal. It’s most common among individuals who are over age 65.
If you wait too long to seek treatment for gallstones, they can lead to a perforated gallbladder. This is a life threatening condition. A dangerous, widespread abdominal infection may develop if the tear isn’t detected.
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.
Polyps can cause obstruction of the gallbladder.
Although rare, gallbladder cancer can spread quickly if not detected and treated.
You may be more likely to develop it if you have chronic inflammation in your gallbladder or bile duct problems.
A doctor may discuss your medical history, symptoms, and family history. They may also ask about your diet and nutrition. Then, they typically perform a physical exam to locate pain in the abdomen and order a blood test.
Results from a
Imaging tests can help identify gallstones in your gallbladder. Imaging tests can include:
- Ultrasound: This test is considered the best imaging test for finding gallstones.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan: This combination of X-rays and technology can show gallstones and 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: This test 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 the doctor has performed any necessary tests, they may make a diagnosis, followed by a recommended course of treatment.
If a doctor discovers gallstones in your gallbladder, you might have gallbladder removal surgery. Although gallbladder removal surgery is safe, any surgery has risks. It’s important to speak with your doctor about:
- the surgery
- typical recovery
- potential complications
Potential complications of gallbladder removal can include:
- infection that requires antibiotics
- bile leakage, though rare
- injuries to the bile duct, intestine, bowel, or blood vessels that may require additional surgery
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
- surgery to remove gallstones
Not all cases will require medical treatment. You may also 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, a 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 by getting medical care. Symptoms that should prompt you to seek immediate medical attention include:
- severe, frequent, or constant abdominal pain
- 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 and imaging results, a doctor may recommend gallbladder removal surgery.