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 and how to prevent a recurring gallbladder attack.
Causes of Gallbladder Pain
The following health problems are all potential sources of gallbladder pain:
- Biliary sludge
- Acute cholangitis
- Gallbladder rupture
- Functional gallbladder disease
- Gallbladder cancer
The most common cause of gallbladder pain 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 cholecystitiscauses 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 think 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.
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
Diagnosing Gallbladder Pain
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 gallbladder pain is a result of gallbladder disease, your healthcare provider will want to visualize the organ.
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:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Peptic ulcer disease
- Acute coronary syndrome, which includes unstable angina and myocardial infarction (a heart attack)
- Pancreatitis (acute or chronic)
- Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA)
- Irritable bowel syndrome
Treating Gallbladder Pain
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. If surgery is necessary, your healthcare provider will likely suggest doing it in the second trimester or waiting until you've given birth.
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.
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, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. High intake of saturated fats, sugar, sodium, refined carbs, red meat, fried foods, and full-fat dairy products may lead to or worsen gallbladder problems.
What is the survival rate for gallbladder cancer?
The five-year relative survival rate for gallbladder cancer that has not yet spread is 65%. For cases that have spread regionally to nearby lymph nodes or organs, the survival rate is 28%. Cases of distant spread have a survival of 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.
Gallstones pass into the intestine, which usually does not cause problems. Gallstones cause pain when they block the ducts that carry bile from the liver into the intestine. Contact your health care provider or go to your local emergency room if your abdominal pain becomes unbearable.How can I get my gallbladder to stop hurting? ›
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.What should I do if I have gallbladder attack symptoms? ›
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you. Seek immediate care if you develop signs and symptoms of a serious gallstone complication, such as: Abdominal pain so intense that you can't sit still or find a comfortable position.When should I go to the ER for gallbladder pain? ›
The most common gallstone symptom is severe abdominal pain in the upper right area of the stomach, which can spread to the shoulder or upper back. You may also vomit and feel nauseous. Seek emergency medical care if these symptoms last more than two hours or you have a fever.What foods trigger gallbladder attacks? ›
- Chocolate, whole milk, ice cream, processed cheese, and egg yolks.
- Fried, deep fried, or buttered foods.
- Sausage, salami, and bacon.
- Cinnamon rolls, cakes, pies, cookies, and other pastries.
- Prepared snack foods, such as potato chips, nut and granola bars, and mixed nuts.
Drink Lots of Water
Not everyone needs that much. But if you get less than your body requires, it can take a toll on your gallbladder. Water helps the organ empty and keeps bile from building up. This protects against gallstones and other problems.Sipping more also can help you slim down.
When you're experiencing gallbladder pain, you should sleep on your left side. Sleeping or resting on your left side allows your gallbladder to freely contract and expand until the blockage of your bile duct has cleared. The theory is that this can help resolve pain.Can a gallbladder attack go away on its own? ›
Your gallbladder attack may go away on its own. This can happen if the gallstones safely pass and don't cause complications. You'll still need a follow-up visit with your doctor. You may need scans and tests to confirm that the pain is from a gallbladder attack.How long does a gallbladder pain attack last? ›
Gallstones can cause sudden, severe abdominal pain that usually lasts 1 to 5 hours (although it can sometimes last just a few minutes). The pain can be felt: in the centre of your abdomen (tummy) just under the ribs on your right-hand side – it may spread from here to your side or shoulder blade.What happens if you ignore gallbladder pain? ›
If gallstones lodge in a bile duct and cause a blockage, it eventually results in severe life-threatening complications such as bile duct inflammation and infection, pancreatitis or cholecystitis (an inflammation of gallbladder). In addition, if left untreated, it might increase risk of “gallbladder cancer”.
If your gallbladder ruptures, you may have sudden, sharp severe abdominal pain. The pain might be short-lived after the rupture. But the pain often returns when the rupture site with leaking content grows or becomes inflamed or infected.What time of day is gallbladder pain worse? ›
Gallbladder attacks often follow heavy meals and usually occur in the evening or during the night. If you've had one gallbladder attack, more attacks will likely follow. Gallbladder attacks usually stop when gallstones move and no longer block the bile ducts.What drinks are good for gallbladder problems? ›
Water is your best beverage option for its many health benefits and because it detoxifies impurities that impact your gallbladder. To avoid a trip to the hospital over the holidays, be sure to include plenty of fruits, fibrous vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and lean meats on the menu.Can drinking water remove gallstones? ›
Surgery is not the only way to deal with gallstones. These natural and easy ways will help you dissolve gallstones. Drinking enough water is one of the safest and hassle-free ways to dissolve gallstones without any possible side effects.What causes a gallbladder to flare up? ›
When gallstones get stuck while traveling through the duct (tube) to the stomach, they block the outflow of bile, which causes the gallbladder to spasm. This usually leads to sharp pain, like being cut by a knife, under the rib cage in the upper right side or center of the abdomen.What drinks should I avoid with inflamed gallbladder? ›
Soda. First, pizza — now soda? Yes, research shows people who drink a lot of soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks also tend to have more gallbladder problems, including gallbladder cancer. Cutting sweet drinks could reduce symptoms as well as lower your risk for these problems.Are bananas OK to eat with gallstones? ›
Can I eat bananas with gallstones? Yes, you can eat bananas with gallstones as they are very low in fat and contain vitamins C and B6 and magnesium, which are all good for your gallbladder. However, don't overdo it as bananas also contain a fair amount of sugar.Is ice or heat better for gallbladder pain? ›
The fastest way to relieve gallbladder pain is to apply a heated compress, heating pad, hot water bottle, or warm wet towel to the area for 10-15 minutes. Magnesium supplements can also aid in the gallbladder emptying bile and ease spasms and pain.Will Tums help gallbladder pain? ›
If you are taking them for symptoms at night, do not take them with food. Antacids cannot treat more serious problems, such as appendicitis, a stomach ulcer, gallstones, or bowel problems.Does walking help gallbladder pain? ›
Studies have found that exercise can help reduce the risk of gallbladder problems. However, no scientific evidence shows that exercise can help remove gallstones, but it may help you manage the pain.
Over-the-counter pain medications, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol), may be options for people with mild and intermittent gallstone pain.Is peanut butter good for gallbladder? ›
A diet good for your heart is good for your gallbladder, too. Any diet that would qualify as "heart-healthy" is "gallbladder-healthy," too. That means a diet with some healthy monounsaturated fats, such as those in nuts, avocados, seeds, olives, peanut butter, and the oils from these products.Is coffee bad for gallbladder? ›
Coffee consumption and gallstones
There is some evidence that coffee triggers the contraction of the gallbladder. It appears likely that caffeine is largely responsible for the effect of coffee, since consumption of decaffeinated coffee is not linked to a reduced risk of developing gallbladder disease in all studies.
It's all a sign that your liver and gallbladder aren't functioning properly. One of the things you want to do to reverse that, if you still have your gallbladder, every morning when you get up, you want to drink a cup of warm water with a wedge of lemon squeezed in there.How do you know if your gallbladder is going to burst? ›
The Signs to Watch Out For
Because gallbladder ruptures are caused by gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis), you should be watching for the following symptoms: Upper right abdominal pain. Abdominal tenderness. Nausea and vomiting.
Chronic stress can result in repeated inhibition of bile release from the gallbladder, disrupting the entire biliary system. This can increase the bile's cholesterol concentration, leading to gallstones.What foods help heal gallstones? ›
- fruits, vegetables, beans, and peas.
- whole grains, including brown rice, oats, and whole wheat bread.
In most patients, a gallbladder attack will last one to four days and then subside. In rare severely affected patients, the gallbladder wall may rupture (perforate) or pus may build up within the gallbladder (empyema). In these patients, surgery may be necessary.How long can you put off gallbladder surgery? ›
Let us say this again: the risk of any complications developing is small. However, delaying necessary gallbladder removal surgery by more than 6 days makes it more likely that surgical complications could develop.How many gallbladder attacks can you have before surgery? ›
Most doctors recommend surgery if you have had repeated attacks. If you have had one attack of gallstone pain, you may want to wait to see whether you have more. Surgery is the best way to prevent gallstone attacks.
Common Symptom: Pain
A gallbladder attack usually causes a sudden gnawing pain that gets worse. You may feel it in the upper right or center of your belly, in your back between your shoulder blades, or in your right shoulder. You might also vomit or have nausea. Pain usually lasts 20 minutes to an hour.
Abdominal pain so intense that you can't sit still or find a comfortable position. Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes. Tea-colored urine. High fever with chills.What fruit is good for the gallbladder? ›
Research suggests the following foods may support gallbladder health: whole fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C, like kiwi and broccoli. citrus fruits, like orange and grapefruit.Is yogurt good for gallbladder? ›
Any high-fat-containing dairy foods like ice cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, sour cream, or excessive sweet intake can aggravate the gallbladder problem.What things will dissolve gallstones? ›
Ursodiol link (Actigall) and chenodiol link (Chenix) are medicines that contain bile acids that can break up gallstones. These medicines work best to break up small cholesterol stones. You may need months or years of treatment to break up all stones.How do you unclog a clogged bile duct? ›
The goal of treatment is to relieve the blockage. Stones may be removed using an endoscope during an ERCP. In some cases, surgery is required to bypass the blockage. The gallbladder will usually be surgically removed if the blockage is caused by gallstones.What vitamins are good for gallbladder? ›
Vitamin C, magnesium, and folate. Vitamin C, magnesium, and folate may help prevent gallbladder disease. Fresh fruits and vegetables are good sources of these nutrients.How do you relieve an inflamed gallbladder? ›
- Fasting. You may not be allowed to eat or drink at first in order to take stress off your inflamed gallbladder.
- Fluids through a vein in your arm. This treatment helps prevent dehydration.
- Antibiotics to fight infection. ...
- Pain medications. ...
- Procedure to remove stones. ...
- Gallbladder drainage.
The pain gets worse with deep breathing as the diaphragm will put pressure on the liver, which then irritates the gallbladder further.Can gallbladder pain last for days? ›
In most patients, a gallbladder attack will last one to four days and then subside. In rare severely affected patients, the gallbladder wall may rupture (perforate) or pus may build up within the gallbladder (empyema).
Most cases of gallstones clear up without surgery. Some stones are tiny and would not cause long-term discomfort. There are times where doctors can clear gallstones with medication or non-surgical treatments. Large stones, infections, or those that cause severe, chronic pain will require surgery.What not to drink with gallbladder problems? ›
Soda. First, pizza — now soda? Yes, research shows people who drink a lot of soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks also tend to have more gallbladder problems, including gallbladder cancer. Cutting sweet drinks could reduce symptoms as well as lower your risk for these problems.What can I drink with gallbladder problems? ›
Water is your best beverage option for its many health benefits and because it detoxifies impurities that impact your gallbladder. To avoid a trip to the hospital over the holidays, be sure to include plenty of fruits, fibrous vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and lean meats on the menu.How long can you go with gallbladder attacks? ›
The attacks usually last several hours. Nothing can be done to stop an attack while it's happening. The pain typically subsides once the gallstone has passed. “Gallbladder attacks are often so painful that people end up in the emergency room,” says Efron.What causes the gallbladder to be inflamed? ›
Cholecystitis is a redness and swelling (inflammation) of the gallbladder. It happens when bile becomes trapped and builds up in the gallbladder. In most cases this happens when solid lumps (gallstones) block the tube that drains bile from the gallbladder. In most cases you will be admitted to a hospital.Why is my gallbladder pain constant? ›
Most of the time, chronic cholecystitis is caused by repeated attacks of acute (sudden) cholecystitis. Most of these attacks are caused by gallstones in the gallbladder. These attacks cause the walls of the gallbladder to thicken. The gallbladder begins to shrink.Is it OK to ignore gallbladder pain? ›
You may need treatment to prevent complications. Don't ignore the pain, and don't try to self-medicate with over-the-counter painkillers. Seek help from a doctor right away if you have any of these signs of a gallbladder attack: intense pain.What is the best drink for gallbladder pain? ›
It can be used to ease stomach pain, improve digestion, and relieve nausea. To ease gallbladder pain and improve gallbladder health, you can try drinking peppermint tea. Some think that drinking this tea regularly can reduce the amount of gallbladder pain attacks you may experience.
Healthy Foods for the Gallbladder
All of the following are healthy foods for your gallbladder, as well as the rest of your body: Fresh fruits and vegetables. Whole grains (whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oats, bran cereal) Lean meat, poultry, and fish.
Because cholesterol appears to play a role in the formation of gallstones, it's advisable to avoid eating too many foods with a high saturated fat content. Foods high in saturated fat include: meat pies. sausages and fatty cuts of meat.
However, if you do not have any gallstones present, then caffeinated black coffee may actually help reduce the risk of gallstones, as it lowers the cholesterol concentrations in bile and works to flush out early-stage formations of gallstones.Is it OK to drink coffee with a bad gallbladder? ›
Coffee can help to mitigate or prevent gallbladder disease, according to two large studies involving both men and women. (2016). It's OK to drink coffee if you have gallstones.Can you eat salad with gallbladder problems? ›
Gallstones can be avoided by eating salads and greens. When it comes to gallstones, avoid fried foods, highly processed foods, and fatty red meats.