Gallbladder Symptoms

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are gallbladder symptoms?

The most common gallbladder symptom is pain or tenderness in the abdomen, which may occur just after eating. This pain can manifest as epigastric pain just below the breastbone, generalized abdominal pain, upper right side abdominal pain, or pain that radiates around the right rib cage and into the back. It can also occur under the right arm in the center, in the chest, or in between the shoulder blades. A common term for pain due to blockage of bile flow from the gallbladder is biliary colic. Other symptoms of a gallbladder attack can include nausea, vomiting, jaundice, and a palpable abdominal mass or lump.

The gallbladder is an organ of the digestive system located in the upper right side of the abdomen under the liver. The gallbladder is a hollow, pear-shaped sac that concentrates and stores bile, which is a digestive substance produced by the liver. Bile is produced by the liver. It then flows from the liver into the gallbladder for storage. When you eat food, the gallbladder squeezes the stored bile into the cystic duct and down the common bile duct into the duodenum of the small intestine where bile helps digest food. Diseases, disorders and conditions that damage the gallbladder, liver, or bile duct and interfere with digestion can cause gallbladder symptoms.

Gallbladder symptoms can occur all the time or only after eating and drinking. Gallbladder symptoms in women are as common as in men. They can affect any age group or population. Gallbladder symptoms can vary in character and intensity depending on the underlying cause and individual factors. They can appear suddenly or gradually build for weeks or months.

Many people have no symptoms and may not know they have a gallbladder condition, such as gallbladder stones or gallbladder cancer. In other cases, people mistake gallbladder symptoms for symptoms of other conditions, such as gastroenteritis, heart attack, hiatal hernia, indigestion, or a peptic ulcer. It is important to seek prompt medical care if you have gallbladder symptoms. Do not assume they are due to a less serious condition, such as indigestion. Only a thorough evaluation by a physician or licensed healthcare provider can determine the cause of symptoms.

Left untreated, gallbladder conditions can lead to serious complications, such as tissue damage, tears in the gallbladder, and infection that spreads to other parts of the body. Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for gallbladder conditions but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

In some cases, symptoms of a heart attack can mimic gallbladder symptoms. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and severe abdominal pain.

What other symptoms might occur with gallbladder symptoms?

The hallmark gallbladder symptom is abdominal pain or tenderness. This can occur in the upper central abdomen (also called the epigastric area), the upper right side of the abdomen, or the pain can radiate from the abdomen to the right shoulder or back. Abdominal pain due to gallbladder conditions often occurs minutes after consuming food or beverages. You may experience abdominal pain or tenderness and other gallbladder symptoms daily or just once in a while.

Other gallbladder symptoms can include:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

In some cases, serious complications of gallbladder conditions occur, such as infection and rupture of the gallbladder or bile ducts. In addition, symptoms of a heart attack can mimic gallbladder symptoms. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms:

What causes gallbladder symptoms?

Gallbladder symptoms are caused by gallbladder-related diseases, disorders and conditions, the most common of which is gallstones. In most cases, gallstones are caused by excessive amounts of cholesterol in the bile that is stored in the gallbladder. The cholesterol hardens to form stone-like structures. The medical term for gallstones is cholelithiasis.

Increased body weight and older age are associated with increased levels of cholesterol in the bile. Gallstones are more likely to occur in women, in people who are obese, and in older individuals.

In some cases, gallstones develop because the bile contains too much bilirubin, which is a waste product of the liver. Gallstones that develop from excess bilirubin are called pigment stones.

Other causes of gallbladder symptoms include:

  • Cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation), which can occur when a gallstone becomes trapped in the cystic duct. Acute cholecystitis causes sudden and severe inflammation of the gallbladder; whereas chronic cholecystitis causes gradual inflammation of the gallbladder.

  • Choledocholithiasis, which occurs when a gallstone passes out of the gallbladder and through the cystic duct but becomes trapped or stuck in the common bile duct

  • Gallbladder cancer which is a rare malignancy

When should you see a doctor for gallbladder symptoms?

Make an appointment to see your doctor if you have ongoing digestive or abdominal symptoms. See a doctor right away when you have the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain that persists for hours

  • Nausea and vomiting that accompanies abdominal pain

  • Pain between your shoulder blades or in your right shoulder

  • Sudden abdominal pain that gets worse with time

Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for potentially serious symptoms of a gallbladder complication including:

  • Clay-colored stools or brown urine

  • Jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin or eyes

  • High fever with chills

  • Severe or intense abdominal pain

How do doctors diagnose the cause of gallbladder symptoms?

To diagnose the underlying cause of gallbladder symptoms, your doctor will take a medical history, perform an exam, and possibly order testing.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of gallbladder symptoms

Your doctor may ask you several questions related to your symptoms.

Questions may include:

  • When did the symptoms first appear?

  • Are your symptoms always there or do they come and go?

  • Do you have pain? Where do you feel pain?

  • How does the pain feel, such as cramping, sharp or dull?

  • How long does your pain last and how often does it occur?

  • Does eating or drinking seem to trigger your symptoms?

  • How severe are your symptoms?

  • What other medical and dental conditions do you have?

  • What medications, supplements, and herbal drugs are you taking?

Physical exam and gallbladder tests

During the physical exam, your doctor will likely concentrate on your abdomen. Your doctor will feel your internal organs and explore for areas of tenderness. Depending on the results, your doctor may order testing. Common tests for diagnosing gallbladder problems include:

  • Blood tests to check blood cell counts, liver function, pancreatic enzyme levels, and bilirubin levels

  • Abdominal ultrasound, which is a common and accurate imaging exam for diagnosing gallstones

  • Endoscopic ultrasound, which involves taking ultrasound images using an endoscope—a thin tube doctors insert through the mouth and into the digestive tract

  • Other imaging exams, including oral cholecystography, HIDA (hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid) scan, CT (computed tomography), MRCP (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography), or ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography). Doctors can also use ERCP as a treatment to remove gallstones in the bile duct.

It is not always possible to diagnose an underlying cause or condition. If the problem persists and your provider is unable to determine a cause, seeking a second opinion may give you more information and answers.

How do you treat gallbladder symptoms?

Treating gallbladder symptoms depends on the underlying cause. The most common cause, gallstones, usually requires surgery to remove the gallbladder. Doctors typically recommend surgery because gallstones often recur unless you remove the gallbladder. You can live without your gallbladder, because bile from the liver will go directly to the small intestine instead of being stored in the gallbladder.

The most common surgery is laparoscopic cholecystectomy. If gallstones are in the bile duct instead of the gallbladder, doctors may be able to remove them with ERCP.

Surgery is also the main treatment for gallbladder cancer. Doctors may combine it with radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Diet for gallbladder symptoms

A healthy diet is an important part of preventing gallstones and other gallbladder conditions. This includes:

  • Avoiding unhealthy fats in red meat and fried foods and replacing them with healthy fats, such as olive oil, and lean proteins

  • Eating high-fiber foods, including whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables

  • Limiting foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates and replacing them with complex carbohydrates instead

Getting regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight are also key factors in gallbladder health. Talk with your doctor about a safe diet and exercise plan. If necessary, it is best to lose weight slowly and steadily. Crash diets, very low-calorie diets, and rapid weight loss can actually increase your risk of gallstones. Medical supervision may be necessary for some people trying to lose weight quickly.

What are the potential complications of gallbladder symptoms?

Complications associated with gallbladder symptoms can be progressive and vary depending on the underlying cause. Because gallbladder symptoms can be due to serious diseases that can progress quickly, failure to seek treatment can result in complications and permanent damage.

Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, follow the treatment plan you and your healthcare practitioner design specifically for you to lower your risk of potential complications including:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jun 27
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