One of the most painful gastrointestinal problems is gallbladder attacks. These attacks occur when bile and minerals in the gallbladder form small stone-like deposits or gallstones. As a result, the gallbladder tries to pass the stones through the bile ducts and the stones tend to get stuck and cause anywhere from mild to severe pain.
Note that some people may have gallstones, but pass them without an aggressive attack. Learn about the symptoms, treatments, and causes behind gallbladder attacks.
Gallbladder Attack Symptoms
Typically, a gallbladder attack looks like a sharp pain in the upper right or upper middle section of your abdomen. Usually, these occur after eating foods high in fat or cholesterol, so the body attempts to release bile from the gallbladder, but cannot because of a gallstone blockage.
Now, there are actually two subtypes of gallbladder disease that lead to attack-like symptoms. The first type is cholecystitis, and the second type is choledocholithiasis.
(koh-luh-si-stai-tuhs) Redness, swelling, or inflammation of the gallbladder due to blockage of the bile duct from excess bile production or gallstones. This disease can occur both chronically or acutely.
- Severe pain that starts suddenly, in the upper right of your abdomen
- Pain that radiates to the back or below your right shoulder blade
- Abdominal cramping
- Jaundice (yellowing skin)
Cholecystitis can also cause a yellowing of the whites of the eyes.
Consult with your doctor if you experience these symptoms repeatedly. They will carefully test your symptoms to eliminate the possibility of further infections, tumors, or blood vessel issues.
The most obvious sign of acute cholecystitis is the sudden onset of intense pain near the upper right of the abdomen, or under the right shoulder blade which radiates outward. The pain gets worse with deep breathing as the diaphragm will put pressure on the liver, which then irritates the gallbladder further.
- Pain aggravated by deep breathing
- Appetite Loss
- An abdominal bulge
- Sudden onset of pain lasting several hours
In contrast to the previous condition, this type of vein disease occurs when a gallstone gets stuck in the bile duct. Most of the time, people with gallstones will not notice their passing. However, when a gallstone does get stuck, it causes abdominal pain typically associated with gallbladder disease.
- Pain in the upper right abdomen
- Yellowing eyes
- Yellowing skin
- Appetite loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Light, grey, or clay-colored stools
- Dark-colored or tea-colored urine
If these gallbladder attack symptoms last more than two hours or you have a fever, you may need to go to the hospital for emergency medical care.
Descriptions of Symptoms of Gallbladder Attacks
Because everything in your body is connected, when one organ isn’t working properly, it will cause other problems. If you notice any of the following symptoms, you should contact your doctor immediately.
If you notice sudden fevers after a gallbladder attack, you should seek help immediately. Fevers can be a sign of inflammation of the gallbladder or an infection. If left untreated, a gallbladder infection can spread to other parts of the body and cause serious damage to your body.
With your gallbladder backed up, the excess bile can work its way into your bloodstream. As a result, patches of your skin will turn yellow, and even the whites of your eyes will begin to yellow.
Loss of Appetite
The bile produced by the gallbladder breaks down fats during digestion. However, when the gallbladder becomes blocked, the body can’t break down fats. As a result, you may feel full or simply experience a loss of appetite.
Nausea and Vomiting
Furthermore, because your body can’t break down fats with a blocked gallbladder, you may feel nauseous or experience vomiting. The pain from a gallbladder attack could also add to these symptoms.
Diarrhea, Discolored Stools, and Urine
Frequent bowel movements, light-colored stools, and dark-colored urine can all be signs of gallbladder problems. Light-colored stools especially are a sign that gallstones are blocking the bile ducts.
What Are the Causes of Gallbladder Attacks and Gallstones?
There are many factors that can cause gallstones to form. For example, high levels of cholesterol in the bile can lead to the formation of gallstones. High levels of bile salts, bilirubin, and calcium also contribute to the build-up of gallstones.
Additional risk factors include:
- Being over the age of 60
- A family history of gallbladder disease
- Crohn’s Disease
Other risk factors include taking medications containing estrogen as well as having a disease that affects how your body absorbs nutrients. If you have any one of these risk factors, talk to your doctor about what you can do to mitigate these risks.
How Long Does a Gallbladder Attack Last?
Usually, a gallbladder attack will last anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours. The length of a flare-up largely depends on the size of the gallstone.
Treatments for Gallbladder Disease
Diagnosing Gallbladder Disease
There are several different types of treatments available. The level of treatment will depend on the severity of your symptoms. In order to diagnose and treat gallstones, your doctor will use one of the following methods to assess the extent of your symptoms.
- CT Scan
- Endoscopic Ultrasound
- Blood tests
- Imaging Tests
If you deal with periodic gallbladder attacks, you can take pain relief medication and, possibly, nausea relief medication. It’s also possible to prevent more gallbladder attacks with self-care and certain medications.
However, for larger gallstones or more severe symptoms, you will likely need surgery. In this case, you may be referred to a gallbladder specialist at a general surgery center.
The main surgical procedure used to treat gallbladder problems is called a cholecystectomy. Generally, this procedure is performed laparoscopically, but can also be performed as an open procedure. The difference between an open and laparoscopic gallbladder removal is the intensity of the procedure.
Open surgeries require more invasive processes to remove the gallbladder. In contrast, a laparoscopic procedure uses minimally invasive devices inserted into small incisions to remove the gallbladder. Regardless of which procedure you receive, you will be under general anesthesia for your comfort and to keep you pain-free.
Stop a Gallbladder Attack While It is Happening
Gallbladder attacks can be so painful that many people end up in the emergency room. While nothing can be done to completely stop the attack while it is happening, there are ways to relieve some of the pain.
- Apply a heated compress to the area for 10-15 minutes to relieve gallbladder pain
- Try sipping menthol tea which is pain relief properties
- Sip apple cider vinegar to stop inflammation and relieve pain
- Take a magnesium supplement to ease gallbladder spasms
While rare, it is possible to pass a gallstone. When this happens, the gallstones are small and may exit the gallbladder through the bile ducts and move on into your intestines. Gallstones are excreted in your stool, unlike kidney stones which are expelled through the urinary tract. You may notice tiny gallstones in the toilet after a bowel movement. Gallstones are usually diamond-shaped and yellowish but can come in any shape, size, or color.
Gallbladder Surgery Recovery
Generally, patients of laparoscopic surgery, or keyhole surgery, can leave the hospital the same day of their procedure. However, after open gallbladder removal surgery, patients usually stay in the hospital for 3-5 days.
Your doctor will give you instructions for your recovery. Usually, this includes avoiding heavy lifting or high levels of activity.
Can Gallbladder Symptoms Be a Sign of Other Problems?
The short answer is yes, gallbladder symptoms can be a sign of other problems also. Symptoms of gallbladder disease are similar to symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Alternatively, gallbladder attacks may be confused with heart disease.
Find a Gallbladder Surgeon in Nashville, Tennessee
Many of the general surgeons at The Surgical Clinic have been trained in gallbladder surgery. If you experience frequent gallbladder attacks, come visit one of our general surgeons in Nashville, Smyrna, Lebanon, Mt. Juliet, Hermitage or Murfreesboro.
Our surgeons offer professional and expert consultations to help you get the best care possible. Call The Surgical Clinic near you today and set up your appointment.
Call The Surgical Clinic
Schedule a consultation for gallbladder surgery or gallbladder treatment in Tennessee.
Gallbladder Disease and Surgery
Gallbladder disease is a term used for several types of conditions that affect the body’s bile system. This system includes the liver, gallbladder, and bile ducts. Dr. Drew Reynolds of The Surgical Clinic goes over the disease process and nature of gallbladder surgery.
Answering Common Questions About Gallbladder Removal
Dr. Joshua Taylor, general surgeon at The Surgical Clinic, answers some of the most common questions patients ask about gallbladder surgery in this short video.
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