Pain in the Gallbladder
Your gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ about 4 inches in size and located under the liver in the upper right section of abdomen. Most people don’t think much about this oddly named sac unless it starts to hurt.
As part of the body’s complex digestive system, the gallbladder stores and releases bile, which is the fluid your liver produces to help digest fats in the food you eat. This inconspicuous body part can become painful if deposits of digestive fluid known as gallstones begin to form in it.
Your gallbladder is a nonessential body part, meaning you can live a perfectly normal life without one. In many cases, gallbladder problems are resolved by having the organ surgically removed. After gallbladder removal, bile flows out of bile ducts directly to the digestive system instead of first being kept the gallbladder.
Removal of the gallbladder, known as cholecystectomy, is one of the most common surgeries in the United States.
The pain and its causes
Gallstones are the most common cause of gallbladder pain. Gallstones are hardened, stone-like objects that develop in the gallbladder or bile ducts. They vary in size from a grain of salt to the size of a golf ball. They are typically harmless but can lead to problems down the line.
You can develop one large stone, multiple small ones or both. Sometimes this happens with no symptoms. In such cases, the stones are considered benign because they don’t interfere with the digestive process.
However, pain can occur when a gallstone blocks one of the bile ducts. This can lead to inflammation or infection of the gallbladder.
Cholecystitis is the medical term for gallbladder inflammation. It is often caused by stones that block the tube that drains bile from the gallbladder to the small intestine. Severe pain in the upper right belly and bloating are symptoms of this inflammation. Treatment can include a hospital stay and surgery to remove the gallbladder.
Gallstone pancreatitis, which is inflammation of your pancreas, is another issue that can cause pain in the gallbladder region. It occurs when a gallstone blocks the pancreatic duct.
Gallbladder rupture or perforation can occur with severe inflammation or when a gallstone over time wears a hole in the walls of your organ. It’s rare, but it can be very serious and requires immediate medical attention or surgery. In addition to pain, symptoms include high fever, nausea and vomiting. A sports injury or a traffic accident can also cause a rupture, but this too is uncommon.
Gallbladder pain treatment often depends on the severity of the pain and whether infection is involved. Because diet can be a factor, cutting back on greasy, high fat or spicy foods could help ease discomfort in cases that are not severe.
For a person with obesity, shedding weight can help reduce the chance of gallbladder issues. Those with generally asymptomatic gallstones might take a wait and see approach. In such cases, a doctor may recommend exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer foods high in sugars and carbohydrates.
However, if you experience gallbladder pain, you should inform your healthcare provider, even if your symptoms have subsided. A person who experiences symptomatic gallbladder pain has a good chance having it recur if they do not get treatment or undergo gallbladder removal.
People who in poor health and thus not able to undergo surgery may be prescribed medications to reduce gallbladder pain and the risk of infection.
Many doctors opt for surgery in cases of significant gallbladder problems as opposed to treating the condition medically. Surgery permanently eliminates the risk that an infected gallbladder can perforate or tear, leaking infected contents into the abdomen.
Gallbladder removal surgery can be performed laparoscopically or as open surgery. Patients who do not have complications usually go home the same day after a laparoscopic procedure or one to two days after an open procedure, according to the American College of Surgeons.
It’s important to know that those without a gallbladder can lead a normal, healthy life after recovery.
Learn more about surgeon James Wooldridge, MD