Gallbladder Pain

Overview

What is gallbladder pain?

Gallbladder pain is any pain you feel in your upper right belly (abdomen) that may be related to your gallbladder.

What is the gallbladder?

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.

Where is gallbladder pain felt?

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.

What does gallbladder pain feel like?

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.

What are other gallbladder pain symptoms?

In addition to severe pain in your upper right abdominal area, you may experience the following symptoms:

Can gallbladder pain last for weeks?

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.

Possible Causes

What causes gallbladder pain?

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:

Bile duct stones (choledocholithiasis)

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.

Gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis)

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

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

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

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 (cholangiocarcinoma)

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.

Care and Treatment

What is the fastest way to relieve gallbladder pain?

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.

What side do you lay on for gallbladder pain?

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.

How is gallbladder pain treated?

Treatment for gallbladder pain depends on the cause and severity of your condition. Your healthcare provider may first try:

  • Pain medication: If you have frequent gallbladder attacks, your healthcare provider may prescribe a pain reliever to manage your pain.
  • Antibiotics: Your healthcare provider may prescribe an antibiotic if you have an infection.
  • Endoscopy: Your healthcare provider may be able to treat minor gallbladder issues with an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) exam. With ERCP, your provider will guide a tube-like tool called an endoscope through your digestive system. Then, they can remove gallstones, place stents to open up bile ducts and take tissue samples for a biopsy.

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:

  • Laparoscopic cholecystectomy: With laparoscopic surgery, your surgeon only makes a few small cuts (incisions). They insert a surgical tool called a laparoscope into one incision. The laparoscope has a camera at one end so your provider can see your gallbladder on a screen. Your provider will remove your gallbladder through another incision. This type of surgery generally leads to fewer complications, faster recovery and smaller scars. Surgeons perform most cholecystectomies laparoscopically.
  • Open cholecystectomy: With open surgery, your surgeon makes one larger incision to open up your abdomen. Your surgeon may need to perform open surgery if you have a more complicated case, such as a severely inflamed or scarred gallbladder. They may also use open surgery if they suspect you may have cancer.
  • Robotic cholecystectomy: Robotic cholecystectomy is a more recent method that’s available in a small number of centers.

If cancer is causing your gallbladder pain, your provider will work with a team of specialists to provide further treatment.

How can gallbladder pain be prevented?

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.

When to Call the Doctor

When should I call my healthcare provider after gallbladder surgery?

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can mimic gallbladder pain?

Gallbladder pain is most often felt in the abdominal area, where several other organs are located. Other conditions that may cause abdominal pain include:

  • Appendicitis: You’ll usually feel pain from appendicitis in the lower right portion of your abdomen. Gallbladder pain is typically felt in the upper to mid-abdominal area.
  • Kidney stones: Kidney stones can also cause sharp pains in your abdomen and back, but you may also notice issues with your pee. It may be pink, red or brown, foul-smelling or cloudy.
  • Pancreatitis: Pancreatitis causes pain similar to a gallbladder attack. But pancreatitis is almost always accompanied by nausea, vomiting and weight loss. You may also experience a fast heart rate (tachycardia) and foul-smelling poop.
  • Ulcers: Ulcers may cause abdominal pain, but you may also feel a burning in your stomach along with bloating, a feeling of fullness, burping and heartburn.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): With IBD, you may feel similar abdominal pain, but it can also cause diarrhea, blood in your poop and weight loss.
  • Gastroenteritis: You may think you have a problem with your gallbladder, but with gastroenteritis (stomach flu), you experience other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and cramping.

How can you tell the difference between gallbladder and liver pain?

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.

References

  • American College of Gastroenterology. Biliary Tract Disorders, Gallbladder Disorders, and Gallstone Pancreatitis. (https://gi.org/topics/biliary-tract-disorders-gallbladder-disorders-and-gallstone-pancreatitis/) Accessed 6/29/2022.
  • American Academy of Family Physicians. Gallbladder Removal: Laparoscopic Method. (https://familydoctor.org/gallbladder-removal-laparoscopic-method/) Accessed 6/29/2022.
  • Jones MW, Genova R, O'Rourke MC. Acute Cholecystitis. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459171/) [Updated 2022 Apr 13]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Accessed 6/29/2022.
  • Lee JY, Keane MG, Pereira S. Diagnosis and treatment of gallstone disease. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26455113/) Practitioner. 2015 Jun;259(1783):15-9, 2. PMID: 26455113. Accessed 6/29/2022.
  • Merck Manual. Overview of Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disorders. (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/liver-and-gallbladder-disorders/gallbladder-and-bile-duct-disorders/overview-of-gallbladder-and-bile-duct-disorders) Accessed 6/24/2022.
  • National Cancer Institute. Gallbladder Cancer. (https://www.cancer.gov/types/gallbladder) Accessed 6/29/2022.
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Gallstones. (https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/gallstones?dkrd=hispt0204) Accessed 6/29/2022.
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. Bile Duct Diseases. (https://medlineplus.gov/bileductdiseases.html) Accessed 6/29/2022.

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