Gallbladder pain is (often misspelled “gall bladder”) an all-inclusive term used to describe any pain due to disease related to the gallbladder. The major gallbladder problems that produce gallbladder pain are biliary colic, cholecystitis, gallstones, pancreatitis, and ascending cholangitis. Symptoms vary and may be triggered by eating certain foods. The pain may be described as intermittent, constant, abdominal, radiating to the back, mild to severe depending on the underlying cause.
A brief review of the gallbladder anatomy and function may help readers better understand gallbladder pain. The gallbladder is connected to the liver via ducts that supply bile to the gallbladder for storage. These bile ducts then form the common hepatic duct that joins with the cystic duct from the gallbladder to form the common bile duct that empties into the GI tract (duodenum). In addition, the pancreatic duct usually merges with the common bile duct just before it enters the duodenum. Hormones trigger the gallbladder to release bile when fat and amino acids reach the duodenum after eating a meal, which facilitates the digestion of these foods. Statistics suggest that women may have up to twice the incidence of gallstones than men.
What are the causes of gallbladder pain?
As stated previously, the major gallbladder problems that produce gallbladder pain are biliary colic, cholecystitis, gallstones, pancreatitis, and ascending cholangitis. There are two major causes of pain that either originates from the gallbladder or involve the gallbladder directly. They are due to 1) intermittent or complete blockage of any of the ducts by gallstones; or 2) gallstone sludge and/or inflammation that may accompany irritation or infection of the surrounding tissues, when partial or complete obstruction of ducts causes pressure and ischemia (inadequate blood supply due to a blockage of blood vessels in the area) to develop in the adjacent tissues.
Gallstone formation usually happens in the gallbladder, but may form in any of the ducts. When the gallbladder is compressed (squeezed by musculature), bile usually goes out through the bile ducts into the GI tract; however, if gallstones or gallstone sludge is present, there can be partial or complete blockage of the ducts with pressure on the surrounding tissue, sometimes enough to cause local ischemia. Other processes such as trauma can cause gallbladder pain. Infection of the biliary ducts and the gallbladder, usually occurring after gallstone obstruction also can cause pain.
What is biliary colic?
Biliary colic is a term used to describe the type of pain related to the gallbladder, when the gallbladder contracts and the cystic duct is partially or completely blocked by a gallstone. The symptoms are described below.
What are other signs and symptoms of gallbladder pain?
Gallbladder pain may vary or feel different depending on the cause. Many people with gallstones never experience pain. However, there are some variations in gallbladder pain that help the doctor to make a diagnosis.
- Biliary colic (intermittent duct blockage): Sudden and rapidly increasing pain (ache or pressure) in the right upper abdomen or epigastric area; some people will have pain radiating to the right shoulder (or back pain in the tip of the scapula) and/or also develop nausea and vomiting. The pain usually subsides in about 1 to 5 hours although a mild ache may persist for about a day.
- Cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder tissue secondary to duct blockage): severe steady pain in the upper-right abdomen that may radiate to the right shoulder or back, abdominal tenderness when touched or pressed, sweating, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and bloating; discomfort lasts longer than with biliary colic.
- Acalculous cholecystitis (no gallstones) has similar symptoms to cholecystitis but occurs as a complication of other problems like trauma or burns; patients have severe symptoms and appear very ill.
- Pancreatitis: Gallstones from the gallbladder can block the pancreatic duct and cause pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) with upper abdominal pain that may radiate to the back, tender abdomen, more pain after eating, nausea, and vomiting. Read More