In one way or another, gallbladder pain is almost always caused by one particular gallbladder problem: gallstones. Around 10 percent to 20 percent of the total adult population (up to 40 percent in some age groups) is believed to have at least mild to moderate gallstones. The incidence of gallbladder symptoms rises with age, so those over 60 are most susceptible. (1)
Woman over 40 develop gallstones most often, and therefore compared to men they’re more likely to deal with recurrent gallbladder symptoms, such as abdominal pain, back pain and indigestion. Most of the time gallbladder symptoms are due to the formation of small “stones” formed from cholesterol, calcium and other particles that bind to each other and can become lodged inside the gallbladder.
Another serious gallbladder problem is cholecystitis, or inflammation of the gallbladder. The Merk Manuals Medical Dictionary states that cholecystitis is usually caused from a gallstone blocking the cystic duct, which carries bile from the gallbladder. It typically causes strong to very severe abdominal pain that lasts for six hours or more, sometimes accompanied by other symptoms like a fever and nausea. (2)
Several factors can increase your risk for developing gallstones and other gallbladder symptoms, such as cholescystitis. Factors including the quality of your diet, your weight, age, gender and genetics all influence the health of your digestive organs. Several life circumstances that most people don’t realize can contribute to gallbladder troubles are pregnancy, “crash dieting” resulting in rapid weight loss, a lack of exercise/sedentary lifestyle and having low HDL “good” cholesterol.
Why Do We Have a Gallbladder?
The gallbladder is a small organ in the shape of a “sac” that has the primary role of storing bile that’s made in the liver. As part of the digestive system, the gallbladder helps communicate back and forth to other organs in order to perform functions, such as enzyme production and storage, chemical reactions that break down foods into nutrients, and elimination of waste.
The gallbladder sits just under the liver, and the two organs have a close working relationship. The primary need for the gallbladder storing and recycling excess bile is so bile can be reused for the digestion of future meals. Bile helps enzymes in the body break down fats into fatty acids. Once bile is made in the liver, it travels to the gallbladder through a channel called the cystic duct. The gallbladder stores bile between meals so when we eat bile can be squeezed through the bile duct as needed and used to break down food before it makes its way to the intestines.
If the gallbladder becomes inflamed, surgery to remove the organ is sometimes a last-resort option to prevent rupturing. Following removal, the gallbladder is not actually needed for survival or digestion because bile can be made to flow from the liver right into the small intestines. Therefore the gallbladder is said to be a nonessential organ. (3)
Signs of Gallbladder Problems and Gallbladder Symptoms
Whether your gallbladder pain is due to gallstones or another cause, symptoms likely include: (4)
- Pain in the abdomen and back
- Sometimes severe shooting pains, especially when pressing on the upper right part of the abdomen. Severe pain can also spread outward to the lower back, right shoulder blade or tops of the thighs
- Tenderness and swelling over the gallbladder
- Stiffness over the gallbladder and trouble moving or twisting from the abdomen
- Nausea, loss of appetite and sometimes vomiting
- Trouble breathing
- Sometimes symptoms of a fever, such as muscle stiffness, weakness, fatigue, dizziness and chills. Fever affects those with acute gallbladder inflammation most often but rarely occurs in people with chronic cholecystitis
Gallstones are tiny stones that form in the gallbladder that are primarily made up of cholesterol, calcium deposits and sometimes other minerals. Compared to kidney stones, gallstones tend to be smaller and softer (almost like sludge or sand) since cholesterol, one of the main substances that forms gallstones, isn’t a solid substance. Gallstones are usually tied to both sudden (acute) gallbladder symptoms and also chronic gallbladder inflammation.
Cholecystitis Symptoms Caused from Gallstones
Inflammation of the gallbladder can be either acute (beginning suddenly and typically lasting for a shorter time) or chronic (develops over time and causes persistent symptoms long term).
Acute cholecystitis usually causes severe, steady pain in the upper abdomen. Research shows that around 95 percent of all people with acute cholecystitis have gallstones that block an important channel leading from the gallbladder. In some cases, the gallstone blockage can cause an infection in which the gallbladder fills up with fluid and thickens. If the gallbladder becomes very swollen, rupturing is possible, which is why emergency surgery is sometimes needed.
Chronic cholecystitis is almost always due to gallstones and causes recurrent attacks of symptoms and pain when a stone blocks the cystic duct. Over time, this damages the gallbladder and can cause thickening, scarring, swelling or shrinking. The more the gallbladder becomes inflamed and scarred, the more mineral deposits (such as calcium) become stuck, painful and a risk for gallbladder rupturing.
Cholecystitis without Gallstones
Although most cases of gallbladder inflammation are due to gallstones, sometimes gallstones aren’t present — this is called acalculous cholecystitis. Even when gallstones aren’t detected, most patients with gallbladder inflammation have some sort of tiny residue particles in their gallbladders that contribute to pain and symptoms. Other situations where gallbladder pain can develop even without gallstones are following surgery, after recovering from a serious inflammatory or blood-borne illness, after fasting for a long period (not eating), when dealing with an autoimmune disorder, or possibly from a virus that affects tissue in various organs.
Gallbladder Symptoms in Infants/Babies
A report published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology states that in infants, colicky symptoms can sometimes be an important indication of gallbladder problems or related symptoms affecting the liver. (5) Colicky symptoms include fussiness, crying, bowel changes and trouble sleeping.
Colic episodes can last from a few minutes to three hours or more depending on the infant and sometimes result in a bowel movement or gassiness. While colic isn’t always tied to gallbladder or liver problems, it’s been found that babies with colic tend to have indigestion in common. Babies and young children are also at a higher risk for acquiring viruses or infections that can cause gallbladder inflammation, especially when they have weak immune systems.
Causes and Risk Factors for Gallbladder Symptoms
Factors like stress, a poor diet and obesity are tied to gallbladder problems because these can contribute to inflammation or may cause dangerous visceral fat to form around the digestive or vital organs. Obesity has been shown to contribute to higher levels of cholesterol in the liver and can contribute to many different digestive dysfunctions. Visceral fat associated with gallstones is often visible just from looking at someone’s extended waist.
Other causes and risk factors for developing gallstones or gallbladder disease are: (6)
- Consuming a poor diet and/or suffering from nutrient deficiencies
- Fasting, crash dieting or losing weight rapidly in other ways
- Pregnancy and experiencing other hormonal changes
- The use of birth control pills/oral contraceptives
- Having high triglyceride levels (a type of fat in the blood)
- Having low HDL cholesterol
- A sedentary lifestyle/lack of physical activity
- Having a family history of gallstones or other gallbladder symptoms
- A history of autoimmune disease, viruses or infections that hinder the immune system
Conventional Treatments for Gallbladder Symptoms (Including Gallbladder Surgery)
If signs of severe cholecystitis gallbladder inflammation are detected, especially when attacks keep coming back, many doctors choose to remove the gallbladder. Gallbladder removal surgery is called cholecystectomy, which is performed either invasively or noninvasively. The gallbladder is typically removed through surgery using a laparoscope.
The trouble with gallbladder surgery (whether to remove gallstones or the organ itself) is that usually it won’t actually fix the underlying problem causing pain and other symptoms, nor will removal of stones necessarily prevent future ones from forming. Gallstones can be removed nonsurgically with certain medications in some cases, but it’s been shown they often don’t work long term without other lifestyle changes. Plus, gallstones typically wind up developing again within five years after nonsurgical treatment, especially when factors like poor diet and impaired immunity are not addressed.
Natural Treatments for Gallbladder Problems
1. Stick to an Anti-Inflammatory Gallbladder Diet
A gallbladder diet involves consuming mostly plant foods and other unprocessed products in order to manage your weight, balance hormones and reduce inflammation. Just avoid cutting calories too low, since research shows yo-yo dieting or fad-dieting (causing people to lose more than three pounds per week) might increase the chance of getting gallstones.
Eat more probiotic foods and high-fiber foods (aim for 30–40 grams of fiber per day), including cultured yogurt/kefir, avocado, leafy greens, tomato, sweet potato, bananas, beets, artichoke and dandelion greens. Focus on unrefined healthy fats, including olive or coconut oil, sprouted nuts and seeds. Consume clean and lean protein like pasture-raised chicken, turkey, grass-fed beef, bison, wild-caught fish and organic protein powder, including that from bone broth.
Gallbladder problem foods to avoid include fried foods and hydrogenated oils, fast foods, lunch/deli meats, convenience foods like chips or cookies, salami and other cured meats, pork products, added sugar, processed dairy, and conventional grain-fed animal meat. High-fat meals can potentially worsen gallbladder issues, so consuming healthy fats in moderation is important.
Regular exercise may help protect against gallstones because physical activity is beneficial for hormonal balance, reducing inflammation, overall digestive health and maintaining a healthy weight. (7) Aim for about 30–60 minutes of moderately intense exercise each day.
3. Balance Hormones Naturally
According to the National Foundation of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the female sex hormone estrogen might be the reason why gallstones are more common among women than men. Estrogen dominance is a problem among men too, however, especially when they consume a poor diet and are overweight. You can help balance hormones naturally with exercise, stress reduction, avoiding chemical/toxin exposure and a healthy diet.
4. Check Your Medications
If you currently take medications, including oral contraceptives (birth control pills), hormone replacement drugs or cholesterol medications, then discuss with your doctor whether these might contribute to your gallbladder problems.
5. Consider Supplements
Natural supplements that may be able to help treat gallbladder symptoms and prevent attacks include milk thistle, turmeric, bile salts, dandelion root, lipase enzymes and rosemary essential oil.
Facts and Figures Regarding Gallbladder Symptoms
- Approximately 10 percent to 20 percent of the total adult population (or more) is believed to have gallstones. In those who develop acute gallbladder inflammation, at least 95 percent have gallstones.
- Gallbladder symptoms, including gallstones, are most common in women, adults over the age of 40, and anyone who is overweight or obese — 10 percent to 15 percent of men over 60 years old and 20 percent to 40 percent of women of the same age have gallstones.
- During a gallbladder attack, abdominal pain usually lasts about six to 12 hours but might persist longer. Gallbladder pain normally peaks 15–60 minutes after starting and then remains constant until the episode is over.
- Most gallbladder attacks cause pain to come and go over the course of two to three days. In most cases, pain should go away within about one week but often returns at a later time if underlying causes of gallstones aren’t treated.
- Gallstone surgery or surgery to remove an inflamed gallbladder are some of the most commonly performed surgeries in industrialized nations, with more than 750,000 surgeries performed every year to remove gallstones in North America alone.
- Gallbladder surgery is usually performed within 24 to 48 hours after symptoms start if serious inflammation is detected. If untreated, the type of gallbladder inflammation called acalculous cholecystitis results in death for about 65 percent of people. This disorder can cause serious complications, including rupturing.
Precautions Regarding Gallbladder Problems
Although gallstones usually aren’t life-threatening and commonly only cause short-term pain, sometimes symptoms can become very severe and dangerous. Acalculous cholecystitis is the most dangerous type of gallbladder problem, typically causing sudden, excruciating pain in the abdomen, high levels of gallbladder inflammation, and sometimes rupturing of the gallbladder.
Always seek help from a doctor or head to the emergency room if you suspect you have gallstones or display symptoms of acalculous cholecystitis. Leaving this condition untreated can cause someone to become very ill and even die. Look for any of the following signs of complications, and let your doctor know right away if you notice these symptoms worsening:
- Increasingly severe pain
- High fever and chills
- High amounts of bloating and swelling over the gallbladder, caused from pockets of pus (abscesses) or a tear (perforation)
- Jaundice, including yellowing of the skin (caused from a backup of bile in the liver called cholestasis)
- Passing dark urine and light-colored stools
Final Thoughts on Gallbladder Symptoms
- Gallbladder symptoms, including gallstones, are a common problem among adults over 40, especially those who are overweight, eat a poor diet, and have existing hormonal imbalances or cholesterol problems.
- Symptoms of gallstones or gallbladder disease/inflammation include abdominal pain that’s sometimes severe and occurs in attacks, back pain, fever, tenderness and swelling over the gallbladder, and nausea.
- Natural ways to prevent and treat gallbladder symptoms are eating an unprocessed diet (high in fiber, antioxidants and electrolytes), maintaining a healthy weight and heart, adjusting medications, and exercising.
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