The gallbladder is a small digestive organ that sits on the right side of the abdomen, under the liver. It stores and releases bile to aid digestion. People are unlikely to pay much attention to their gallbladder unless they begin experiencing pain.
If a person experiences gallbladder-related pain, they may be able to manage some symptoms at home. However, severe gallbladder pain may require medical attention, including surgery to remove this organ.
This article explains how to recognize gallbladder-related symptoms and outlines potential home remedies and medical treatment options.
The gallbladder’s function is to store and concentrate bile. Bile is a substance that the body uses to digest fats in a person’s diet. The liver produces bile, which the gallbladder stores until the body requires it for digestion.
Ideally, when a person eats foods that contain fats, the stomach digests some of the food, and the gallbladder releases bile to aid digestion.
However, the components of bile (specifically, cholesterol and bilirubin) can sometimes start to build up and become gallbladder sludge. This accumulation of substances may lead to the formation of small, pebble-like “stones” that doctors call gallstones.
Gallstones can block the release of bile from the gallbladder. When the stones block its release, the bile starts to back up in the gallbladder.
Cholecystitis pain has the following characteristics:
- affects the upper abdomen, usually on the right side
- may radiate to the back and the right shoulder blade
- comes on after a meal or in the evenings
- worsens when taking a deep breath
- is sudden and often intense
A person may describe the nature of the pain in a variety of ways. They may report a cramping, dull, or constant pain that can persist for up to 6 hours.
Other symptoms that may accompany gallbladder problems include:
- shortness of breath due to discomfort when taking a deeper breath
If a person experiences these symptoms, they should seek emergency medical treatment.
The treatment options for gallbladder pain often depend on the severity of a person’s pain and whether there is likely to be an infection.
Avoiding foods known to worsen gallbladder pain may help reduce the likelihood of the pain worsening. These foods include:
- greasy foods
- high fat foods, including fatty cuts of meat
- spicy foods
Avoiding these foods allows the gallbladder the chance to “rest.”
People claim that various home remedies can relieve gallbladder pain. Examples of these include milk thistle, apple cider vinegar, and castor oil (or other natural laxatives). However, there is not a lot of medical research to support their effectiveness in treating gallbladder pain.
If a person experiences symptomatic gallbladder pain, the chances are that the pain may happen again. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, once a person experiences acute cholecystitis, they have a 29% chance of having another episode within a year if they do not undergo gallbladder removal.
If a person has overweight or obesity, losing weight can help reduce the likelihood that gallbladder pain will recur.
People who are not suitable candidates for surgery, usually due to poor health, may benefit from prescription medications to reduce gallbladder pain and the risk of infection. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat a potentially infected gallbladder.
Another medication that doctors may prescribe to treat gallbladder pain is ursodiol. The category for this medication is “bile acid sequestrant,” which means that it can help dissolve gallstones. Doctors also prescribe the medication to treat cirrhosis. The possible side effects of this medication include fatigue, headaches, nausea, and weight gain.
The gallbladder is not an organ that is necessary for human life. When a person has severe problems associated with their gallbladder, doctors may find it safer to remove the gallbladder than to try treating the person’s symptoms medically. The reason for this is that an infected gallbladder can perforate or tear, leaking infected contents into the abdomen.
Doctors can perform gallbladder removal surgery, or cholecystectomy, as a laparoscopic (minimally invasive) or open surgery procedure. Usually, performing a cholecystectomy as quickly as possible enhances the person’s recovery and outcome.
However, if a person is unlikely to be able to withstand surgery, a doctor may recommend another procedure known as percutaneous transhepatic gallbladder drainage.
Also called a biliary drainage procedure, it involves identifying the liver under imaging guidance and placing a small stent that allows bile to drain. Doing this can help reduce bile buildup in the gallbladder and prevent unwanted side effects, such as jaundice.
A person should seek emergency medical attention if their gallbladder pain does not subside 6 hours after it began. This persistent pain could indicate that the gallbladder is “clogged,” making the infection risk higher. A person should also seek emergency medical attention if they experience the following symptoms:
- severe bloating
Any time that a person has an upset stomach and right upper abdomen pain, a problem with the gallbladder could be responsible. A doctor can help guide a person as to the next best treatment steps.
People may experience pain in the right upper quadrant of their abdomen due to problems with their gallbladder. Typically, this pain is due to the formation of gallstones.
In some cases, dietary changes and medications may help manage the symptoms. However, if the symptoms persist, doctors can surgically remove the gallbladder to prevent further problems. Those without a gallbladder can lead a normal, healthy life after recovery.