Gallbladder problems and symptoms

Warning Signs You May Need Your Gallbladder Removed

The human body contains a few organs that may leave you scratching your head as to their purpose. Why do we have an appendix or wisdom teeth for instance? Science refers to these as vestigial organs, meaning that while they were once useful, they serve no purpose to humans today. Then, there are organs such as the gallbladder that are a step above vestigial organs in their function but which the body can still function just fine without.

What is the Purpose of the Gallbladder?

The gallbladder’s role is in digestion, and while it does serve a purpose, it isn’t essential. This small, pear-shaped organ is located just below the liver. It stores small amounts of bile that are released into the small intestine after eating to aid in the digestion of fats. However, it can also become the source of painful and troublesome symptoms should it become inflamed or develop gallstones.

The primary source of problems within the gallbladder, including inflammation, stem from the development of gallstones. These hard deposits of digestive fluid can occur in the gallbladder itself or in the bile duct, and they can range in size from as tiny as a grain of sand to as big as a golf ball. Some patients may only develop a single gallstone, while others will have several. However, it is not the presence of gallstones but the complications they cause that may necessitate surgery. When these deposits develop and cause a blockage in the bile duct, the bile is unable to circulate out of the liver as normal, building up and resulting in painful inflammation in a condition known as cholecystitis. The symptoms associated with the condition include:

  • Sudden and severe pain at the upper right or center abdomen
  • Tenderness of the abdomen
  • Pain after eating
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting

If left untreated, the complications could lead to an infection or even cause the gallbladder to tear or burst.

What Can You Expect from Gallbladder Surgery?

If gallstones have been identified as the source of your symptoms, treatment options could include dietary changes and medications to dissolve existing gallstones or prevent the development of new ones. However, surgical removal of the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) is the most common treatment. Fortunately, the procedure is common and has minimal risk of complications. Most frequently, it is performed on an outpatient basis using minimally invasive laparoscopic techniques.

After the procedure, patients are generally able to go home the same day, barring complications. Full recovery may take up to a week, and most can return to normal activity within a few days. While digestive complications following the surgery are rare, some patients experience side effects such as loose stools that tend to resolve over time.

If you have been experiencing symptoms associated with gallstones, do not put off a visit to your physician. It is unlikely that the condition will resolve on its own. In fact, it may worsen and lead to more severe complications down the line. Gallbladder removal is not only simple, but it is also highly effective at alleviating symptoms once and for all, allowing patients to once again eat and function without discomfort.

The team at Lane Surgery Group perform cholecystectomies regularly and with great results. Click below to learn more about our team and facility.

Gallbladder inflammation. Also called cholecystitis, this can happen if bile builds up in your gallbladder from gallstones. Less often, other culprits can include tumors, certain bacteria, or problems in your bile ducts. When your gallbladder gets inflamed and swollen, symptoms include pain in your belly, including the area just above your stomach. You also may feel an ache in your back or right shoulder blade.

Usually, an ultrasound and other imaging tests can diagnose it. You may need surgery to remove your gallbladder. (Your body can work fine without it.) Without treatment, the organ can burst.

Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). This is a liver disease that damages your bile ducts. It’s progressive, meaning it gets worse over time. About 4 out of 5 people who PSC also have inflammatory bowel disease. PSC can lead to liver failure. Many people have no symptoms. Or you might feel tired or have pain in the upper right side of your abdomen or itchy skin. This condition is often found when routine blood tests show your liver isn’t working right.

Gallbladder cancer . This is rare and hard to diagnose. More often than not, you won’t have symptoms until the cancer has spread. Signs may include abdominal pain, especially on the upper right side, as well as weight loss, jaundice, and belly bloating. A family history of gallstones; being older, female, or obese; and eating unhealthy foods can make you more likely to get cancer in the gallbladder.

Bile duct cancer . You may not have symptoms in the early stages of this cancer. If you do, it’s often because the bile duct is blocked. Jaundice is the most common symptom, along with itchy skin and light-colored or greasy poop. If your tumors are big enough, you may have belly pain, especially below your ribs on the right side. Surgery gives you the best chance at a cure. But most bile duct cancers are found too late for that. In that case, you may need radiation or chemotherapy to shrink the tumors first.

Signs and Symptoms of Gallbladder Cancer

Gallbladder cancer doesn’t usually cause signs or symptoms until later in the course of the disease, when the tumor is large and/or has spread. But sometimes symptoms can appear sooner and lead to an early diagnosis. If the cancer is found at an earlier stage, treatment might work better.

Some of the more common symptoms of gallbladder cancer include:

Abdominal (belly) pain

Most people with gallbladder cancer will have belly pain. Most often it’s in the upper right part of the belly.

Nausea and/or vomiting

Some people with gallbladder cancer sometimes have vomiting as a symptom.


If the cancer gets big enough to block the bile ducts, bile from the liver can’t drain into the intestines. This can cause a greenish-yellow chemical (called bilirubin) in the bile to build up in the blood and settle in different parts of the body. The yellow coloring of jaundice can often be seen in the skin and the white part of the eyes.

Lumps in the belly

If the cancer blocks the bile ducts, the gallbladder can swell. Gallbladder cancer can also spread to nearby parts of the liver. These changes can sometimes be felt by the doctor as lumps on the right side of the belly. They can also be seen on imaging tests such as an ultrasound.

Other symptoms

Less common symptoms of gallbladder cancer include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Swelling in the abdomen (belly)
  • Fever
  • Itchy skin
  • Dark urine
  • Light-colored or greasy stools

Keep in mind: Gallbladder cancer is rare. These symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than gallbladder cancer. For example, people with gallstones have many of these same symptoms. And there are many far more common causes of belly pain than gallbladder cancer. Also, hepatitis (liver inflammation caused by a viral infection) is a much more common cause of jaundice.

Still, if you have any of these problems, it’s important to see a doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

Does Alcohol Affect the Bladder?

A common question people have is “does alcohol affect the gallbladder.” The reason many people think there is a relationship between alcohol and the gallbladder is because of the proximity of this organ to the liver.

We know the liver and alcohol have a relationship to one another, and if you consume too much alcohol, it can cause a variety of liver problems ranging from mild to severe. However, alcohol and the gallbladder don’t have the same relationship.

Currently, there is no research that shows that alcohol contributes to gallbladder problems including gallstones, and a small amount of alcohol may actually help prevent the development of a condition related to the gallbladder. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should start drinking to keep your gallbladder healthy because you’re ultimately going to cause damage to other parts of your body in the process.

Also, while alcohol and gallbladder conditions aren’t directly related, drinking heavily could indirectly contribute to gallbladder problems. One way is through liver cirrhosis. People who have cirrhosis of the liver can get gallstones as a result of a complication that comes from liver scarring.

Something else to note about alcohol and gallbladder conditions is that if you have pancreatitis as the result of gallstones, drinking large amounts of alcohol can make the problem worse. If you have gallbladder symptoms, you should avoid alcohol.

So, if alcohol doesn’t affect the gallbladder and lead to gallstones, what does? There are a number of reasons gallstones can form including:

  • Genetics; having a family member with a history of gallstones may mean you’re more likely to get them
  • Obesity or losing significant amounts of weight quickly
  • Having an imbalance in the chemicals that make up bile
  • Having irritable bowel or Crohn’s disease

So to sum up, does alcohol affect gallbladder health? In most direct ways alcohol doesn’t cause gallbladder problems, and the best things you can do to maintain a healthy gallbladder include having a healthy weight and avoiding crash diets.

With that being said, that doesn’t mean alcohol and gallbladder health don’t have an indirect relationship. For example, if you have cirrhosis of the liver you’re more likely to develop complications such as gallstones. Also, if you have existing gallbladder conditions, you should avoid alcohol because it can cause complications.

Alcohol-Induced Pancreatitis

Jump To Section

  • Pancreatitis
  • Symptoms of Pancreatitis
  • Pancreatitis and Alcohol
  • Diagnosis of Pancreatitis

The pancreas is an organ/gland that is adjacent to the small intestine and behind the stomach. The pancreas has two major functions:

  • Producing and releasing digestive enzymes in the small intestine to help in the digestion process
  • Releasing glucagon and insulin into the bloodstream to help the body use energy properly


According to the US National Library of Medicine, pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas becomes swollen. Damage to the pancreas as a result of pancreatitis or some other issue occurs when digestive enzymes that are normally released by the pancreas are activated before they are released into the small intestine. There are two forms of pancreatitis.

  • Acute pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that only lasts for very short periods of time and then resolves. Its severity may range from life-threatening to mild. The majority of cases of acute pancreatitis result in complete recovery, but in severe cases, there can be tissue damage, infection, and even the formation of cysts.
  • Chronic pancreatitis is long-lasting inflammation of the pancreas that continues after acute pancreatitis. There are various potential causes of chronic pancreatitis, including chronic alcohol use.

Have you been drinking?

How do I recognize gallbladder inflammation?

Share on PinterestGallbladder inflammation can occur as a result of gallstones.

The most common symptoms of gallbladder inflammation are:

  • Upper-right quadrant pain: This pain often has a sudden onset, often occurring shortly after a high-fat meal. It may start just above the bellybutton but will eventually settle under the edge of the ribcage on the right side of the abdomen, around the location of the gallbladder.
  • Nausea and vomiting: Fats cannot be broken down for digestion due to the obstructed bile duct, resulting in a lack of appetite, feelings of nausea, and vomiting.
  • Fever: A fever over 100 °Fahrenheit (37.8 °Celsius) occurs in about one-half of individuals with cholecystitis.
  • Malaise: A person with an inflamed gallbladder may experience a general feeling of discomfort, illness, and uneasiness. Malaise is a common complaint with many illnesses and is often the first indication of inflammation or infection.

Additional gallbladder inflammation symptoms may vary based on age and overall state of health.

Gallbladder pain first presents in the form of spasmodic pains in the abdomen but over time will change to a steady, severe pain that resting, changing position, or using other measures does not resolve. Pain may also occur in the right shoulder or upper-right region of the back.

The pain will intensify over time, especially when taking a deep breath or with any kind of movement. Most people call their doctor within 4 of 6 hours of experiencing this type of pain.

In children and older adults, gallbladder symptoms may be vague. They may not experience pain or fever and complain only of malaise, lack of appetite, and weakness. Some people with gallbladder inflammation encounter a yellow tinge to the skin, known as jaundice. However, this is rare.

Biliary Colic

Medically reviewed by Last updated on May 10, 2019.

  • Health Guide

What Is It?

Biliary colic is a steady or intermittent ache in the upper abdomen, usually under the right side of the rib cage. It happens when something blocks the normal flow of bile from the gallbladder. Bile is a liquid that helps to digest fats. Under normal circumstances, bile is made in the liver and stored in the gallbladder. When you eat a meal, bile passes from the gallbladder through the cystic duct and the common bile duct into the small intestine, where it mixes with partially digested food.

Gallstones are the most common reason for biliary colic. If a gallstone blocks either of these ducts, the normal flow of bile into the intestine is disrupted. The muscle cells in the bile duct contract vigorously to try to move the stone, causing the pain of biliary colic. A stricture of the bile duct or a tumor also can block bile flow and cause biliary colic.


A person with biliary colic usually complains of an ache or a feeling of pressure in the upper abdomen. This pain can be in the center of the upper abdomen just below the breastbone, or in the upper right part of the abdomen near the gallbladder and liver. In some people, the abdominal pain spreads back toward the right shoulder blade. Many people also have nausea and vomiting.

Because symptoms of biliary colic usually are triggered by the digestive system’s demand for bile, they are especially common after fatty meals. The symptoms also can occur when a person who has been fasting suddenly breaks the fast and eats a very large meal.


After you describe your symptoms, your doctor will perform a physical examination, paying particular attention to the upper right portion of your abdomen (the area of your liver and gallbladder). Ultrasound, the same painless procedure used to produce pictures of babies in the womb, can be used to produce pictures of your abdomen so your doctor can look for gallstones. Blood tests also may be done, especially if you have any fever or if your pain persists.

Expected Duration

Most episodes of biliary colic pass after 1 to 5 hours. After the most intense pain passes, your abdomen may continue to ache mildly for about 24 hours.


Because biliary colic is usually related to gallstones, it can be prevented by controlling the risk factors for gallstones. Some of these risk factors, such as heredity, increasing age and pregnancy, are a normal part of life. Others, such as obesity and a high-fat diet, are risk factors you can modify through a healthy lifestyle. Women going through menopause who take estrogen (hormone replacement therapy) are also more likely to develop gallstones and biliary colic.


At first, your doctor may prescribe pain medication and encourage you to eat a fat-free diet. If the first episode of biliary colic is particularly severe, or episodes of colic keep retuning, surgery to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) usually is recommended. This procedure can be done through small incisions using an instrument called a laparoscope. The procedure usually requires only a brief stay in the hospital, and some people can leave the hospital the same day they have their operation. It is the most widely used treatment in people troubled by painful gallstones, because it is very effective and safe, with no complications in more than 90 percent of cases.

If surgery cannot be done and symptoms of biliary colic are lasting, medication that dissolves gallstones may be used. However, this medication is expensive and can take months or years to work. Also, only small stones will dissolve. Rarely, medication to dissolve gallstones is combined with a procedure called shock-wave lithotripsy, which uses carefully aimed shock waves to break up gallstones. However, in many people treated with medication or lithotripsy, gallstones tend to form again within a few years.

When To Call a Professional

Call your doctor whenever you have severe abdominal pain, with or without nausea and vomiting. If you have symptoms of biliary colic and you suddenly develop a fever and shaking chills, this may signal a gallbladder infection (cholecystitis), so call your doctor immediately.


As long as you have gallstones that can block your cystic duct or common bile duct, you are at risk for repeated episodes of biliary colic. There is also a 25 percent chance that you will develop acute cholecystitis, or some other complication of gallstones, within 10 to 20 years.

External resources

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Medical Disclaimer

What Does a Gallbladder Attack Feel Like?

Doctor’s Response

The gallbladder is an organ that stores digestive enzymes that are used by the body to break down fatty foods in the diet. A diet heavy in fatty foods can lead to gallstones, which are small stone-like bodies made of cholesterol and bile salts. When you eat a meal, the gallbladder contracts to push the digestive enzymes into the intestine.

Gallstones can cause problems with the flow of digestive enzymes from the gallbladder. If gallstones block the contractions, it can be quite painful (gallbladder attack, also called biliary colic).

A gallbladder attack is characterized by pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen. The pain comes on as a squeezing feeling that progresses to intense pain that may radiate to the middle of the abdomen, the back, or the chest. Pain may also be felt in the right shoulder blade. The pain typically is at its worst about an hour after onset, and usually takes a few hours to slowly subside. The pain may also be accompanied by sweating, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting.

Premier Surgical Associates

How Do I Know If Pain Is Caused By My Gallbladder or Heartburn?

Tuesday, September 6th, 2016 | Written by Premier Surgical Staff

The causes of heartburn and abdominal pain are often bewildering for many patients of Premier Surgical Associates in Knoxville. The leading symptoms of both heartburn and gallbladder disease are upper abdominal pain and heartburn, which understandably sends people’s minds racing.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that what typically causes heartburn can also trigger a gallbladder attack— a diet of fatty or spicy foods, lying down after eating, being overweight, and genetics.

If the symptoms and the sources of both heartburn and gallbladder are so overlapping, how do you know which you may be experiencing? Upper abdominal pain can be caused by a variety of disorders, including acid reflux and gallbladder disease, and even medical professionals may have difficulty distinguishing among these causes. However, the location, nature, and timing of your symptoms may help clarify a diagnosis.


The gallbladder is a sac that sits in the upper right abdomen that stores bile produced by the liver. The bile aids in the digestion of the food you eat. Most of the time, the gallbladder functions normally, but when it becomes blocked or infected it can become a painful and potentially dangerous medical condition.

Being overweight, heredity, or hormones and pregnancy are common risk factors for both gallbladder attacks and gallstones. Gallbladder attacks are often triggered by diet, such as if you’ve just eaten a heavy or greasy meal. The pain usually occurs in the upper right abdomen, and may radiate to the right shoulder or back. Symptoms may also include diarrhea, fever, or chills. However, the key is that symptoms should ease after a half-hour to an hour.

In the case of gallstones, an imbalance in the bile causes pebble-like deposits to form which increases pressure on the gallbladder if they block the bile ducts. This can cause pain that, as with a gallbladder attack, may radiate to out the right shoulder or back.

The difference is that gallstones may cause mild symptoms for months or even years. The gallstones may pass on their own, but if the pain increases in intensity over time and becomes more generalized, the gallbladder may be infected.

Heartburn, or GERD

Heartburn and GERD, or Gastroesophagael Reflux Disease, is a very common medical condition, affecting up to 40% of adults. While reasons for developing GERD are numerous, diet and genetics play a role, and it’s more prominent with age and obesity.

If you have heartburn or other symptoms such as chest pain, sleep disruption, bloating, or intolerance of certain foods, you may have GERD. With GERD, the muscle valve between the esophagus and the stomach weakens, stomach acid goes back up into the esophagus. But the lining of the esophagus is not created to handle acid like the stomach can, which is why you feel heartburn.

Typically, heartburn symptoms can be alleviated by elevating the torso, managing one’s diet, and often with over-the-counter or prescribed medications. When a patient has tried lifestyle modifications and medications and still experiencing frequent symptoms, or has determined that being on medications long term is too great a risk, surgery may be an option.

When to stop guessing and seek immediate help

If heartburn pain doesn’t ease after an hour, your upper right abdomen is tender to the touch or you experience a sudden intensifying of pain, and you have a fever or the chills, your gallbladder may be diseased and you should seek medical attention. A diseased gallbladder has the potential to be life-threatening and your gallbladder will likely need to be removed. Fortunately, the gallbladder isn’t necessary for survival, and the procedure to remove it his typically an out-patient procedure.

If you have persistent heartburn and upper abdominal discomfort, talk with your physician about the frequency and severity of your symptoms. There are several tests, although not always definitive, that can help pinpoint the source of your discomfort.

Premier Surgical Associates is the largest surgical group in the Knoxville region, providing comprehensive surgical care, with referrals from across the entire East Tennessee region. To learn more about our specialties, visit Premier Surgical Associates.

Tags: Gallbladder, GERD, Heartburn, infection of the gallbladder

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *