The gallbladder is a pear-shaped digestive system organ located on the right side of the abdomen. Its job is to store and release bile for fat digestion.
If its connection (duct) to the liver gets blocked by a "stone," the bile backs up, causing the gallbladder to become inflamed (acute cholecystitis). Once inflamed, the gallbladder becomes enlarged and reddened, and the build-up of fluid in the organ can develop a secondary infection.
Roughly 20% of Americans have gallstones, and as many as one-third of these people will develop inflammation. The chance of gallbladder inflammation increases with age. Other risk factors include female sex, pregnancy, obesity, diabetes, a history of gallstones and rapid weight loss.
Most gallbladder "attacks" are from inflammation, with only 5% being due to bacterial infection.
There are several symptoms of gallbladder inflammation, but the most common is pain in the upper right part of the abdomen that radiates to the right shoulder.
Symptoms of gallbladder inflammation
Additional gallbladder inflammation symptoms may vary based on a person's age and state of health, but in general, the symptoms most commonly associated with inflammation of the gallbladder are:
Most cases of gallbladder inflammation are caused by gallstones blocking the bile duct connected to the liver.
- Upper right quadrant pain: the pain usually comes on suddenly, often with an onset shortly after eating a high fat meal. It may start just above the belly button but will eventually settle under the edge of the ribcage, on the right side of the abdomen where the gallbladder is located.
- Nausea and vomiting: because the release of bile to the small intestine is obstructed, fats cannot be broken down for digestion, resulting in a lack of appetite, feelings of nausea and vomiting.
- Fever: a mild temperature elevation above 100 °F (37.8 °C) is present in about one-half of individuals.
- Malaise: a general feeling of discomfort, illness and uneasiness, or an overall lack of well-being. Malaise is a common complaint with many illnesses and is often the first indication of inflammation or infection.
Gallbladder pain can at first be described as "colicky" - spasmodic pains in the abdomen - but over time will change to a steady, severe pain that is not relieved with rest, changing position or any other measures. Pain may also be present in the right shoulder or upper right back region.
As time goes by, the pain will intensify, especially when taking a deep breath or with any kind of movement. Most people call their doctor within 4-6 hours of the onset of this type of pain.
In children and the elderly, gallbladder symptoms may be vague. They may lack pain and fever, and complain only of malaise, lack of appetite and weakness. Only up to 15% of patients with gallbladder inflammation are jaundiced (yellow tinge to skin).
Complications of gallbladder inflammation
In an emergency room, a patient with an acutely inflamed gallbladder will usually lie perfectly still on the examining table because their pain is aggravated by the slightest movement.
The abdominal muscles will also likely be tensed (guarding), which is essentially a spasm. Guarding helps protect the inflamed organ from potential pain caused from being examined.
In some cases, an inflamed gallbladder can rupture and progress to a life-threatening infection (sepsis).
If surgical treatment is indicated, laparoscopic cholecystectomy (removal of the gallbladder) is the standard of care. After one episode of gallbladder inflammation, additional episodes are common.
Any individual experiencing symptoms of gallbladder inflammation or infection must seek prompt medical attention to avoid any potentially serious or life-threatening complications.
Learn more about cholecystitis, including how it is caused, treated and prevented.
Learn more about gallstones, including how they are diagnosed and available treatments.