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Recognize the Signs & Symptoms of a Gall Bladder Attack

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The gall bladder is a small, pear-shaped organ in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen, tucked up under the liver. When everything is functioning normally, you’ll hardly know it’s there. Its job is to store bile, a digestive enzyme produced in the liver, and then release it into the small intestine every time you eat, to aid in digestion.

However, for such a small organ, it can be hugely disruptive when things go wrong. If you have pain in your abdomen after eating, you may have gall bladder problems.

“The pain can come soon after eating, especially if you’ve eaten fried or fatty foods,” said Melissa deWolfe, DO, a general surgeon at Samaritan Surgical Specialists in Newport. “It can be a dull ache or very sharp pain that can come and go but will typically originate from the upper right quadrant of your abdomen, near your ribs.”

What Causes Gall Bladder Pain?

Although many factors play into a problematic gall bladder, like age, weight, genetics and more, making dietary modifications may help lessen gall bladder irritation, said Dr. deWolfe.

“For some people, especially as we get older, our bodies let us know what foods we should avoid. For the gall bladder, avoiding fried and high-fat foods like fries, chips, bacon, butter and cheese can help minimize or even prevent this type of abdominal pain,” she said. “Notice what foods cause flare-ups in you and avoid them.”

Also, eating high-fiber foods that lower cholesterol, drinking plenty of water to help flush your organs, and maintaining a healthy body weight can aid in gall bladder health.

However, when gallstones form there can be more serious problems.

“Gallstones are hardened deposits of digestive fluid, often occurring from too much cholesterol in the bile. They’re not all that uncommon, and in many cases, they don’t cause any symptoms at all,” said Dr. deWolfe. “However, when a stone works its way into a bile duct, it can be intensely painful.”

Referred to as a gallbladder attack, this knife-like pain can last for several hours and be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, fever and chills and sometimes yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes.

“When you have this level of sharp, radiating pain, you should get to an emergency department,” said Dr. deWolfe. “The symptoms of a gall bladder attack can often mimic those of a heart attack, and we would want to rule out the possibility of a cardiac event.”

Gallstones can pass out of the bile ducts on their own, but some can get stuck, causing a blockage. When a stone gets lodged within a bile duct, you are at risk of infection or further complications.

When Surgery Is Recommended?

“Once gallstones start causing problems, they are likely to continue forming and causing pain. In the majority of those cases, we would recommend surgical removal of your gallbladder. There is no other data-driven effective way to dissolve or remove gallstones,” said Dr. deWolfe.

Gall bladder removal surgery is called a cholecystectomy (pronounced koh-lee-sis-TEK-tuh-me) and is one of the most common surgeries in America.

To determine if you need the surgery, you will likely have a blood test and an ultrasound. Further testing could include an MRI scan using a special dye to help clinicians see any blocked ducts, a HIDA scan to test your gallbladder function, and/or an endoscopy, which involves threading a tiny scope with a video camera attached into your digestive tract to get a detailed picture of the small intestine.

“If your medical team determines surgery is necessary, the most common procedure is done by laparoscopic surgery, which is minimally invasive with a shorter recovery time,” said Dr. deWolfe.

The procedure requires several small cuts in the abdomen through which a surgeon inserts a tiny scope with a video camera and surgical tools to locate the gall bladder and remove it. This is typically an outpatient procedure, and patients can go home afterward.

In some instances, your surgeon may recommend a more traditional surgery called an open cholecystectomy.

Either way you will likely never miss having a gall bladder.

“Removal of the gall bladder won’t negatively affect your digestion process. Without it, your liver will just deliver bile directly to the small intestine and your digestive process will work the same,” said Dr. deWolfe. “Even though you can still eat fatty foods without a gall bladder, for overall health, we recommend you limit foods that can cause weight gain, heart problems and other health issues.”

If you suspect you may have gall bladder issues, call your primary care provider for a referral to a specialist. If you are in extreme pain, go to the Emergency department.

Learn more about gallstones and acute pancreatitis from our health library.