Chances are you barely know what your gallbladder is let alone which gallbladder attack symptoms to look out for. When you have really bad stomach pain, it’s easy to chalk it up to that double bean burrito you ate an hour ago. Or if it’s abnormally painful your mind may jump to appendicitis.
But there’s another health condition that can cause bad stomach pain and probably isn’t on your radar: a gallbladder attack. Keep reading to learn what the heck your gallbladder is and what it does, plus the signs of a gallbladder attack you should know about.
What is my gallbladder and what does it do?
Excellent question. Your gallbladder sits under your liver on the right side of your midsection below your ribs. It helps your body digest fat and stores bile, a fluid your liver secretes to help with digestion. “When you eat, your gallbladder contracts and shoots bile into the intestine,” Kyle Staller, M.D., M.P.H., a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF. “That serves as soap to help break up fats.”
Your gallbladder is a lot like your appendix. “You’re perfectly fine if it’s gone,” Rudolph Bedford, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF. Your liver still produces bile without your gallbladder, so it’s really not necessary to digest your food.
What is a gallbladder attack exactly?
Just like pretty much every other body part, things can go wrong with your gallbladder. Enter: Gallstones, which can block your ducts and cause a gallbladder attack, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
Gallstones are little deposits of hardened digestive fluid that can range in size from a speck of sand to a golf ball, per the Mayo Clinic. If you have gallstones, when your gallbladder contracts to try to push bile out, the deposits can get wedged inside the duct that goes to the small intestine. As you can imagine, this feels beyond terrible. (There’s a reason it’s called a gallbladder attack instead of, say, a gallbladder nudge.) “It’s exquisitely painful,” Dr. Staller says.
Why do gallstones form in the first place?
To understand this, you need to know that there are two types of gallstones. Cholesterol gallstones are usually made up of undissolved cholesterol that joins to form a stone, Dr. Staller says. Fun (and disgusting fact): They’re typically yellow, according to the Mayo Clinic. Pigment gallstones, on the other hand, are often dark brown or black. They occur when your bile contains too much bilirubin, a chemical your body produces as it breaks down red blood cells.
A few other factors can contribute to stone formation, like your bile not having enough bile salts (compounds that help break down your fat) and your gallbladder not emptying correctly or often enough, according to the NIDDK.
Here are the gallbladder attack symptoms to look out for.
You can have gallstones and not even know it—or you can really know you have them due to certain symptoms.
People will usually have a gallbladder attack after eating a heavy, fatty meal and they can last anywhere from minutes to hours, Diya Alaedeen, M.D., a general surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in gallstone removal in addition to other abdominal health issues, tells SELF.
Plenty of people are clueless that they have gallstones because they have no symptoms, Dr. Bedford says. While these silent gallstones don’t require treatment, they do raise your risks of having them in the future, which could lead to a gallbladder attack.
And even without symptoms, gallstones also increase your risk of gallbladder cancer. It’s a rare form of the disease, with only around 4,000 new diagnoses each year in the United States, but only around one in five of these are found in the early stages when the cancer hasn’t spread to other organs and is easier to treat.
If your gallstones do happen to be symptomatic instead of silent, here are common signs of a gallbladder attack you should be aware of:
- A sudden, intense, “stabbing, gnawing, cramping” pain in the upper right section of your abdomen
- A similar pain in the center of your abdomen, under your chest, that might make you wonder if you’re having a heart attack
- Pain in between your shoulder blades
- Pain that radiates into your right shoulder
If your gallbladder attack continues without treatment, the symptoms can become even more serious and progress to:
- Abdominal pain that lasts longer than five hours and is so severe you can’t sit still
- Jaundice (when your skin and the whites of your eyes take on a yellow tinge)
- Pee that looks tea-like
- Poop that is strangely light
Your gallstones can also affect your pancreas in what’s known as gallstone pancreatitis, which is when your gallstones block the movement of digestive enzymes from your pancreas leading to inflammation, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. The symptoms are similar to regular gallstone symptoms, but with a few extras thrown in:
- Sharp, squeezing pain in your upper left abdomen
- Similar pain in your back
If you’re having any of the above symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
What are the chances I’ll have a gallbladder attack?
While anyone with a gallbladder can develop gallstones, there are many known risk factors for developing them. Here are some common ones:
- Being a woman: This is because estrogen can boost bile’s cholesterol levels and make your gallbladder contract less, according to the NIDDK.
- Being over 40: Your cholesterol levels rise as you get older.
- Losing weight too quickly: Dropping pounds, especially through fasting or other extreme means, is hazardous because it makes your liver excrete more cholesterol into your bile, raising your risk of gallstones.
- Being obese or having diabetes: On the other hand, being obese can increase the cholesterol in your bile so it’s also a risk factor, as are type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
- Having certain health conditions: Conditions like Crohn’s disease that screw up your body’s absorption of nutrients can also lead to gallstone formation.
- Having a family history of gallstones: If members of your immediate family have had gallstones, you’re at a higher risk of having them too.
- Being of a certain cultural descent: American Indians have the highest rate of gallstones, according to the NIDDK. The reason: Certain genetic factors can increase the cholesterol in this population’s bile. Mexican Americans also have a high risk of developing gallstones, potentially due to this group having higher rates of American Indian ancestry.
How is a gallbladder attack treated?
Treatment depends on whether you’re having a regular gallbladder attack or are experiencing gallstone pancreatitis. To figure out what’s going on doctors will likely do an imaging test like a CT scan or ultrasound; tests to check the state of your bile ducts; blood tests; or use a thin, flexible tool known as an endoscope to evaluate your stones. They also may give you medications for the pain.
If doctors realize you have gallstones blocking the way to your small intestine rather than to your pancreas, they’ll either try to remove them with an endoscope or simply remove your gallbladder altogether.
If for whatever reason you can’t undergo surgery, your doctors may prescribe medications to dissolve the stones. This is the less ideal option since they can take months to work and people with one instance of gallstones often get them again. Even if you’ve only had one gallstone attack, doctors will usually want to remove the organ to prevent future attacks and also to eliminate your risk of gallbladder cancer.
Things are a little different if doctors realize you have gallstone pancreatitis. In that case, doctors will typically recommend avoiding eating or drinking anything for a few days while you receive intravenous fluids or nutrients so the pancreatic inflammation can go down. They may also remove fluids from your stomach to ease any intense vomiting and also give you anti-nausea medications. Again they’ll either try to remove the badly behaving gallstones or excise the entire gallbladder.
If you’re experiencing such severe symptoms you suspect you’re having a gallbladder attack, it’s time to take action. “Once you have one bad attack, see a doctor,” Dr. Alaedeen says. It’s really best not to sit on it.