The gallbladder isn't an organ that gets a lot of attention — unless it's causing you pain.
The gallbladder is a little sac that stores bile from the liver, and it's found just beneath your liver.
The gallbladder releases bile, via the cystic duct, into the small intestine to help break down the foods you eat — particularly fatty foods.
Typically the gallbladder doesn't cause too many problems or much concern, but if something slows or blocks the flow of bile from the gallbladder, a number of problems can result.
What Can Go Wrong
Some common gallbladder problems include:
Gallstones (cholelithiasis): This is the name of the condition when small stones, or sometimes larger ones, develop inside the gallbladder.
Gallstones may cause pain known as biliary colic (see below), but about 90 percent of people with gallstones will have no symptoms.
Most symptomatic gallstones have been present for a number of years.
For unknown reasons, if you have gallstones for more than 10 years, they are less likely to cause symptoms.
Biliary colic: This is the term often used for the severe episodes of pain that can be caused by gallstone blockage of the cystic duct.
The gallbladder contracts vigorously against the blockage, causing spasmodic (or sometimes constant) severe pain.
Biliary colic episodes usually last only an hour or two. They may recur infrequently, often years apart.
Inflamed gallbladder (cholecystitis): Inflammation of the gallbladder can be caused by gallstones, excessive alcohol use, infections, or even tumors that cause bile buildup.
But the most common cause of cholecystitis is gallstones.
The body can react to the gallstone irritation by causing the gallbladder walls to become swollen and painful.
The episodes of inflammation can last for several hours, or even a few days. Fever is not unusual.
About 20 percent of the time, the sluggish, inflamed gallbladder is invaded by intestinal bacteria, and becomes infected.
Occasionally, the gallbladder actually ruptures, which is a surgical emergency.
Suspected episodes of cholecystitis always require medical attention, particularly if fever is present.
Dysfunctional gallbladder or chronic gallbladder disease: Here, the gallbladder may become rigid and scarred from gallstones and repeated episodes of inflammation.
Symptoms are more constant, but tend to be vague, including abdominal fullness, indigestion, and increased gas.
Chronic diarrhea is a common symptom, usually occurring after meals, and up to 10 times per day.
Common Gallbladder Symptoms
Specific symptoms may vary based on what type of gallbladder condition you have, although many symptoms are common among the different types of gallbladder problems.
But most gallbladder symptoms start with pain in the upper abdominal area, either in the upper right or middle.
Below are common symptoms of gallbladder conditions:
- Severe abdominal pain
- Pain that may extend beneath the right shoulder blade or to the back
- Pain that worsens after eating a meal, particularly fatty or greasy foods
- Pain that feels dull, sharp, or crampy
- Pain that increases when you breathe in deeply
- Chest pain
- Heartburn, indigestion, and excessive gas
- A feeling of fullness in the abdomen
- Vomiting, nausea, fever
- Shaking with chills
- Tenderness in the abdomen, particularly the right upper quadrant
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- Stools of an unusual color (often lighter, like clay)
Some gallbladder problems, like simple gallstones that are not blocking the cystic duct, often cause no symptoms at all.
They're most often discovered during an X-ray or CT scan that's performed to diagnose a different condition, or even during an abdominal surgery.
If you spot any symptoms of gallbladder trouble, head to your doctor for a diagnosis and prompt treatment to get your digestive tract running smoothly again.