At one time or another, we have all experienced an upset stomach, abdominal pain or tummy ache, whether it’s the stomach bug or overindulging on rich foods. Often, it’s easy to chalk it up to the extra helping of French fries and double cheeseburger you ate for lunch, but this complaint is quite different than the intense pain one feels with a gallbladder attack.
Elizabeth Holl, MD, general surgeon with Banner Health in Northern Colorado, explains what your gallbladder is, what it does and the signs and symptoms of an attack.
What is the gallbladder?
The gallbladder is a small, sac-like, pear-shaped organ in the upper right part of the abdomen, just under the liver. “Its job in the body is to store bile, a fluid which gets released into the small intestine while eating to help you digest fats,” Dr. Holl said.
Like your appendix, you don’t need your gallbladder to live. It will have no effect on your ability to digest food. The liver still makes bile. It just is released directly from the liver to your small intestine rather than being held in the gallbladder.
What is a gallbladder attack?
A gallbladder attack occurs when bile contains too much of one or more of its components. It can harden into pebble-like pieces called gallstones or cholelithiasis. These stones can get stuck in a bile duct causing a gallbladder attack. “There are usually two types of gallstones, cholesterol and pigment, and they can range from as small as a grain of sand to the size of a golf ball,” Dr. Holl said.
Who is most at risk of getting gallstones?
Dr. Holl said gallstones can happen in anyone, but some of the more common risk factors are anyone who is:
- over 40 years old
- overweight or obese
- of Native American or Latin American heritage
- losing weight quickly
- eating a diet that is high fat or cholesterol or a diet low in fiber
She added, “You are also at risk if you have a family history of gallstones or gallbladder attacks and if you have a blood disorder, such as sickle cell disease.”
What are the symptoms of gallstones?
Gallstones are very common. In fact, nearly 25 million Americans have them, although they may not be aware of it. These are called silent gallstones. Sometimes, however, when a gallstone blocks a bile duct, you’ll experience the following symptoms:
- sudden sharp pain in the right upper abdomen, middle upper abdomen, midback or right midback or pain under the right shoulder blade or shoulder
- nausea and vomiting
“Sometimes the pain can last several minutes up to several hours,” Dr. Holl said. “If you are experiencing these symptoms, you should see the doctor to be evaluated.” If you do experience severe, debilitating pain, yellowing of the skin and eyes or fever with these symptoms, you should go to the emergency room, as you could be having complications from gallbladder disease.
How are gallstones treated?
Gallstones are hard to diagnose because they share similar symptoms to other conditions, but your doctor will perform a physical exam to look for signs of gallstones. You may need imaging tests like an ultrasound, endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) or CT scan to locate any stones stuck in a bile duct. If you do have gallstones, there are several options available, including:
- No treatment: Typically, if your gallstones don't cause any pain, you won’t require treatment, Dr. Holl said.
- Surgery: The most common way to treat gallbladder disease is laparoscopic surgery to remove the gallbladder. Without surgery, the gallbladder can get infected or even burst, causing further problems.
- Medication: There is medication available to help break down and prevent formation of gallstones. It can take quite a while for this to occur, and for some people with gallstones, it may not improve their symptoms. This medication is typically used for patients who are not surgical candidates.
“Surgery is still the best way to cure gallstones, but talk to your doctor about whether this is the right treatment for you,” Dr. Holl said.
Can I prevent gallstones?
In most cases, gallstones cannot be prevented, but Dr. Holl said some lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk, such as maintaining a healthy weight, eating a high fiber diet and weight loss (losing 1-2 pounds per week).
Need help diagnosing or treating gallbladder pain?
Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider near you.
If you are experiencing severe, debilitating pain, yellowing of the skin and eyes or fever with these symptoms, go to the nearest emergency room for immediate care.