Gallbladder pain is often felt in the right upper belly, under the ribs. It can also spread (radiate) to the lower chest or your right shoulder blade and may be confused for a heart attack.
The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ located in your right upper abdomen, just under your ribcage. It stores and releases bile used in digestion.
Gallbladder pain can come and go. It can be triggered by eating a fatty meal, rapid weight loss, fasting, or going too long between meals. Unlike gas pain, gallbladder pain is not relieved by changing position, burping, or passing gas.
This article discusses the causes of gallbladder pain, including gallstone and gallbladder diseases. It also explains treatments to relieve gallbladder pain and how to prevent a recurring gallbladder attack.
The following health problems are all potential sources of gallbladder pain:
The most common cause of a gallbladder attack is gallstones (also called "cholelithiasis"), which are hard particles that form due to either an imbalance of the substances that make up bile (the fluid that the gallbladder secretes to aid in the digestion of food) or the gallbladder not emptying as it should. These particles can be quite small or grow to the size of a golf ball.
Typically, the formation of gallstones happens very slowly. A person may develop one large stone, multiple small stones, or a mix of the two. It is entirely possible to have gallstones and not have any symptoms. Such stones are considered benign because they do not interfere with the functioning of your digestive system.
Pain occurs, though, when a gallstone blocks one of the ducts in the biliary tract—the part of your body that contains your gallbladder and your bile ducts. The pain may ease when the gallstone moves and the bile duct is no longer blocked.
Serious complications can arise from having gallstones. The gallbladder, common bile duct, or pancreas may become inflamed and infected, posing a great risk to your health. Rarely, gangrene or rupture of the gallbladder can occur, or a gallstone may cause a bowel obstruction.
Besides gallstones, biliary sludge (thickened bile salts) may also form in the gallbladder. This sludge blocks healthy bile emptying out of the gallbladder, potentially causing similar symptoms and complications as gallstones.
Gallbladder inflammation (called "cholecystitis") most commonly develops as a result of gallstones. Less commonly, cholecystitis develops without gallstones (called "acalculous cholecystitis").
When a gallstone becomes stuck within the gallbladder, inflammation ensues, causing sudden and sometimes severe abdominal pain (called "biliary colic") along with nausea, vomiting, fever, and a loss of appetite. Biliary colic describes a dull, cramping pain in the upper-right part of the abdomen.
Acalculous cholecystitis causes the same symptoms as acute cholecystitis, although a gallstone is not the culprit. While the precise cause is not clear, experts suspect poor bile and blood flow within the gallbladder may cause this condition to develop. Acalculous cholecystitis is mostly seen in people who are severely ill, like those on mechanical ventilation or those with a major infection or severe burn injury.
Acute cholangitis occurs from a bacterial infection in the common bile duct, often as a result of an obstructing gallstone, or sometimes from a bile duct stricture or cancer of the gallbladder, bile duct, pancreas, or duodenum (first part of the small intestine). Symptoms of acute cholangitis may include upper-right-sided abdominal pain, fever, and jaundice. In more severe cases, a person may also develop low blood pressure and confusion, which can be signs of life-threatening sepsis.
Rarely, your gallbladder may rupture or burst open as a result of gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis). Even rarer, an injury like a motor vehicle accident or sports contact injury may result in gallbladder rupture, causing sudden and severe, sharp pain in the upper-right part of your abdomen.
Choledocholithiasis is where gallstones block the common bile duct, restricting the flow of bile from the liver to the intestine. The resulting rise in pressure can cause an increase in liver enzymes and also jaundice.
Functional Gallbladder Disease/Biliary Dyskinesia
Functional gallbladder disease (FGBD), sometimes referred to as "chronic acalculous gallbladder dysfunction" or "biliary dyskinesia," is the technical name for gallbladder disease without the presence of any gallstones. It includes dysfunction of the sphincter of Oddi, the muscular sphincter that helps to control gallbladder emptying. Symptoms may come on suddenly or occur chronically.
Biliary dyskinesia is a gallbladder syndrome that occurs when your gallbladder is not emptying properly. Due to improper drainage of bile, gallbladder pain and other symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting, may result.
Biliary dyskinesia is usually only identified after other causes of pain (like gallstones) have been ruled out.
Most of the treatment recommendations have been written to address people with gallbladder hypokinesia (under function), but there is a growing body of research about people with hyperkinesia, whose gallbladders empty too much.
Current research indicates that both hypokinesia and hyperkinesia of the gallbladder may benefit from gallbladder removal (cholecystectomy).
Gallbladder cancer is rare and is often not diagnosed until it is fairly advanced. Besides gallbladder pain, a person with gallbladder cancer may be jaundiced and experience nausea, vomiting, and weight loss.
Because of its vague symptoms, gallbladder cancer is often found late. Gallbladder cancer that is diagnosed late can have a poor prognosis.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
If you are experiencing gallbladder pain, you should inform your healthcare provider as soon as possible, even if your symptoms have gone away. Your healthcare provider will want to make sure that you are not experiencing a problem that will put you at risk for more severe disease in the future.
You should get immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Severe, intense pain that prevents you from getting comfortable
- Pain that increases when you take a breath
- Pain that lasts for more than five hours
- Yellow skin or yellow around the whites of your eyes (called jaundice)
- Fever and chills
- Rapid heartbeat
- Persistent vomiting
- Persistent lack of appetite or unexplained weight loss
- Cola or tea-colored urine
- Clay-colored stools
Getting to the bottom of your gallbladder pain entails a medical history, physical exam, blood tests, and imaging tests.
During your visit, your provider will ask you several questions about your discomfort. For example, they will ask you to pinpoint exactly where you feel the pain as best as you can. Your healthcare provider may also inquire whether your gallbladder pain occurs with eating fatty meals or whether you have any other symptoms like fever, nausea, or vomiting.
During your physical exam, your healthcare provider will focus on your abdomen, specifically the right upper part where your gallbladder is located. In addition to examining the area for skin changes, swelling, tenderness, and guarding (tensing of the abdominal wall), they will likely press on your gallbladder to see if it is tender (a technique called "Murphy's sign").
During this maneuver, your healthcare provider will have you take a deep breath in while they press on your gallbladder to see if any pain is elicited. If so, this indicates an inflamed gallbladder (a "positive" Murphy's sign).
When evaluating gallbladder pain, your medical provider will usually order blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC), a complete metabolic panel, a PT/PTT (blood clotting tests), and liver function tests.
Your provider may also order other tests to rule out other causes of your pain.
In order to confirm that your pain is a result of gallbladder disease, your healthcare provider will want to visualize your gallbladder. The first and sometimes the only test needed is an ultrasound. Ultrasounds are non-invasive and painless. Sometimes, you will be sent to a radiology department for your ultrasound, but some healthcare providers' offices have the ability to perform the ultrasound there.
While trying to determine your diagnosis, your healthcare provider may also order the following imaging tests:
- Hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid (HIDA) scan: By injecting you with a small amount of a radioactive substance, healthcare providers are able to see how the substance moves through your body, including your gallbladder, bile ducts, and your liver. This can help your healthcare providers see how your gallbladder is emptying in real-time.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan ("CAT" scan): Multiple x-rays will be taken, often using a swallowed or IV contrast medium to help picture quality. A computer then puts these multiple images together into a three-dimensional image.
- Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP): As a special type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), this test uses strong magnets to take detailed pictures of your common bile duct and surrounding structures.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): For an ERCP, you swallow a tube with a light and a camera attached, while you are sedated. The camera allows healthcare providers to look for any problems, and attached tools can sometimes allow them to take care of the problem that day, like removing stones or widening a narrow bile duct.
While it is reasonable to think that pain in the right upper abdomen is related to the gallbladder, keep in mind that the liver is also located in this area. Therefore, liver disease, such as hepatitis, may be what is actually causing your presumed gallbladder pain.
Some of the diagnoses that your provider may explore include:
The treatment of gallbladder pain depends on the precise cause.
“Watch and Wait” Approach
For people with asymptomatic gallstones, a "watch and wait" approach is taken, meaning surgery to remove their gallbladder is only done if and when their gallstones begin causing symptoms.
Only about 50% of people with asymptomatic gallstones will develop symptoms, whereas surgery carries some risks. A low-fat diet can be beneficial in preventing gallstone formation, as 80% or more of gallstones are made of cholesterol.
Medications are rarely used to treat gallstones, but your healthcare provider may recommend a medication like a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) for gallbladder pain relief.
Antibiotics may be given if a person develops a gallbladder or biliary tract infection, which is a complication of gallstone disease.
Bile acid pills are sometimes given to people with minimal symptoms and a well-functioning gallbladder. The medications ursodeoxycholic acid and ursodiol help to dissolve the cholesterol type of gallstones in two-thirds of patients within two to three months, but the stones may not disappear entirely.
There are two surgical ways to remove the gallbladder:
- Open cholecystectomy: The gallbladder is removed through a large cut in the abdomen. This is sometimes the only option for ruptured gallbladders or surgery where extensive exploration may be needed, as in cancer.
- Laparoscopic cholecystectomy: The surgeon uses long, thin instruments to remove the gallbladder through a much smaller cut in the abdomen. This is the most common gallbladder surgery.
An endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) is a procedure performed by a gastroenterologist. It can be used to both visualize and remove the problem, and it is most commonly used to relieve an obstructed bile duct.
Focusing on a healthy lifestyle is your best chance to prevent gallstones and, thus, gallbladder pain.
Bear in mind, that these strategies do more than keep your gallbladder healthy—they also keep your heart healthy:
- Visit your primary care healthcare provider for periodic checkups.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes, 5 days per week.
- Eat a healthy diet rich in vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, legumes, and spices.
- Keep your weight low, but try to avoid rapid weight loss.
- Avoid foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
- If you are on a cholesterol medication or hormone replacement therapy, speak with your healthcare provider to find out if these medications have increased your risk for the development of gallstones.
A Word From Verywell
While gaining knowledge about your gallbladder pain is a good proactive step, be sure to get checked out by a healthcare provider. A thorough assessment and prompt treatment of your pain is the best way to prevent complications and get back to feeling your best.
Frequently Asked Questions
What can I do about gallbladder pain during pregnancy?
You may have to make dietary changes to control gallstones during pregnancy, including consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and limiting carbohydrates and saturated fats. If surgery is necessary, it is generally safest during the second trimester, but your healthcare provider may have you wait until after your baby is born.
Why do I still have pain after my gallbladder was removed?
About 5% to 40% of people will experience postcholecystectomy syndrome after gallbladder removal. It can cause abdominal symptoms similar to the pain felt before the gallbladder was removed. In addition, people may experience nausea, vomiting, gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
What are the best and worst foods to eat for the gallbladder?
The best foods for a healthy gallbladder are lean meats, fish, plant-based foods, lower-sodium foods, fruits, vegetables, fiber, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. On the other hand, high intakes of saturated fats, sugar, sodium, refined carbohydrates, red meat, fried foods, and full-fat dairy products may eventually lead to gallbladder problems or exacerbate existing gallbladder conditions.
What is the survival rate for gallbladder cancer?
The five-year relative survival rate for gallbladder cancer that has not spread outside of the gallbladder is 65%. For gallbladder cancer that has spread regionally to nearby lymph nodes or organs, the survival rate is 28%. If it spreads distantly to organs far from the gallbladder, the survival rate drops to 2%.
Can COVID-19 affect your gallbladder?
Yes. It isn't common, but COVID-19 can cause gallbladder pain. One study found the virus can sometimes mimic cholecystitis. What's more, researchers found evidence of the virus in gallbladders surgically removed from people with COVID.