Gallbladder pain is any pain you feel that may be associated with an issue with your gallbladder. The most common cause of gallbladder pain is gallstones. Your gallbladder is located in your upper right abdomen, so you will most often feel pain in this area. Your healthcare provider will treat most gallbladder issues by removing your gallbladder.
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Your gallbladder is a small pouch that’s connected to other parts of your digestive system. It stores and releases bile, the fluid your liver produces to help break down fats. Your gallbladder is located just below your liver in the upper right portion of your abdomen. Your gallbladder releases bile through a series of bile ducts called the biliary tract. This pipe-like system carries bile from your liver and empties it into your small intestine.
The location of gallbladder pain can vary. Your gallbladder is located in your upper right abdomen, so you will most often feel pain in this area. You may also feel upper mid-abdominal pain or chest pain.
You may feel gallbladder referred pain. Referred pain means the pain you feel in one part of your body is caused by pain in another part of your body. Gallbladder pain may spread to your back and right shoulder.
Gallbladder pain feels different than any other kind of pain you’ve ever felt in your abdomen. You may feel a sudden, sharp pain in your upper right abdomen. It may feel like someone is cutting you with a knife. The pain is constant and severe.
The pain doesn’t go away or get better when you move. Passing gas or pooping doesn’t help either. Deep breathing can make the pain feel worse. The pain may hurt so bad you can’t sit still, and you may think you’re having a heart attack.
Eating often makes the pain worse since it causes gallbladder contractions.
In addition to severe pain in your upper right abdominal area, you may experience the following symptoms:
No. Gallbladder pain may last for a few minutes to a few hours. If it doesn’t go away within a few hours, you may have a serious health condition. You should see your healthcare provider for pain lasting longer than two to three hours, especially if you have other symptoms. Gallbladder pain can be so severe that people normally go to the emergency room.
The most common cause of gallbladder pain is gallstones. Gallstones, or cholelithiasis, are stone-like objects that can develop in your gallbladder. They’re made of hardened materials in your body. Most gallstones are made of cholesterol. Gallstones range in size. They can be as small as a grain of salt to as big as a golf ball. Many people with gallstones may not know they have them and may not need treatment.
Other causes of gallbladder pain include:
Gallstones can also travel from your gallbladder to your common bile duct, which is your largest bile duct. Common bile duct stones (choledocholithiasis) are less common and more serious than gallbladder stones. When a stone makes its way out of your gallbladder, it can block your common bile duct. This can result in serious medical conditions such as pancreatitis.
Gallstones can cause cholecystitis, which is the inflammation of your gallbladder. This can occur when a gallstone blocks the flow of bile out of your gallbladder. When bile gets trapped in your gallbladder, bacteria can collect and an infection can develop.
Gallbladder disease can mean any condition that affects your gallbladder or bile ducts. This includes stones, inflammation or other conditions such as biliary dyskinesia and cholangitis. Biliary dyskinesia affects your gallbladder’s ability to move bile into your bile ducts. Cholangitis is inflammation within your bile ducts. It can occur due to infection, blockage or an autoimmune disorder such as primary biliary cholangitis.
Gallbladder polyps are abnormal growths of tissue inside the lining of your gallbladder. These polyps are mostly harmless, but they can signal another gallbladder condition. They can cause complications such as inflammation. About 5% of gallbladder polyps can cause cancer.
Gallbladder cancer is a rare form of cancer that occurs when cancerous (malignant) cells grow in your gallbladder. The cancer cells start in the inner layer of your gallbladder and move outward. Gallbladder cancer is often found after it has spread to other parts of your body.
Bile duct cancer, or cholangiocarcinoma, is a rare type of cancer that starts in your bile ducts. The most common type of bile duct cancer is extrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma. This occurs when the cancer is outside of your liver. Bile duct cancer isn’t usually discovered until a later stage.
For gallbladder pain relief, you can try applying a warm compress to the affected area. You may be able to drink peppermint tea to soothe the pain or take a magnesium supplement to help empty your gallbladder. But there’s not much else you can do to relieve the pain at home. If the pain continues, you’ll typically need medication or surgical treatment.
Your gallbladder is located on your right side, so to avoid compressing it, you may try sleeping on your left side. This ensures your gallbladder is free to contract and expand, which may help a gallstone pass. However, there’s no scientific evidence that confirms sleeping on one side or the other helps with pain relief.
Treatment for gallbladder pain depends on the cause and severity of your condition. Your healthcare provider may first try:
Your healthcare provider will treat most gallbladder issues with gallbladder removal surgery (cholecystectomy). You don’t actually need your gallbladder to survive and can live a normal life without it. Your provider can perform cholecystectomies in three ways:
If cancer is causing your gallbladder pain, your provider will work with a team of specialists to provide further treatment.
The best way to prevent gallbladder pain is by maintaining a healthy diet. Certain foods can cause problems with your gallbladder or aggravate current issues. You should try to avoid high amounts of:
You should try to eat a healthy diet, which consists of a variety of:
In addition, try to eat on a schedule. Don’t skip meals or try to lose weight too quickly. Losing weight too fast can increase your risk of gallstones. Make sure to get plenty of exercise. Regular physical activity can reduce your chances of developing gallstones.
If you continue to have pain after gallbladder removal surgery, you may have a condition known as post-cholecystectomy syndrome. Up to 40% of people will experience this condition after surgery. The syndrome causes symptoms similar to what you felt before surgery. This includes abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.
Researchers don’t know the exact cause of this condition. There may be a problem with your sphincter of Oddi. This is a ring-shaped muscle between your common bile and pancreatic bile ducts and your small intestine. When your sphincter of Oddi malfunctions, it can slow the flow of bile from the ducts. This can cause increased pressure, which causes pain.
You may also be experiencing pain as a result of small gallstones that remain in your bile ducts after gallbladder removal. Other possible causes of pain include irritable bowel syndrome and peptic ulcer disease.
Your provider may use endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) to determine the cause of your post-surgery pain. They can cut and widen your sphincter of Oddi during this same procedure.
Gallbladder pain is most often felt in the abdominal area, where several other organs are located. Other conditions that may cause abdominal pain include:
When you feel pain in your abdomen, it can be hard to figure out what’s causing it. Liver pain can take many forms. Depending on the cause, you may feel pain in your upper right abdomen, mid-abdomen, shoulders or back.
But your liver doesn’t have any pain receptors. So if you feel pain in your liver area, it’s likely due to damage or inflammation of the surrounding tissues. If you are experiencing any severe pain, it’s best to check in with your healthcare provider to determine the cause.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you’re experiencing severe pain in your upper right abdomen, you may have an issue with your gallbladder. One of the main causes of gallbladder pain is gallstones. Your healthcare provider may recommend surgery to remove your gallbladder if you consistently have gallbladder attacks. While this may sound scary, your body doesn’t need your gallbladder to function. You’ll feel much better once you have it removed.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/28/2022.
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