Gallbladder Attack: How Does it Feel Like, Symptoms & Treatments

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Gallbladder Attack: How Does it Feel Like, Symptoms & Treatments

Sudden, intense pain in your upper right abdomen that gradually gets worse is how many people describe a gallbladder attack. When gallstones block the bile duct, the result can be a gallbladder attack, causing sharp aching pain under your right ribs that can last for up to a few hours. Many people say that a gallbladder attack feels like some of the worst pain they have ever experienced.

Your gallbladder is about 10 cm long and is located just below your liver on the right side of your abdomen. Your gallbladder holds about 50 ml (1.7 fl. oz.) of bile that assists in digesting fats. A buildup of cholesterol in the gallbladder is usually to blame for the formation of gallstones (also called cholelithiasis).

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In this article, you will find out what a gallbladder attack is and how to recognize symptoms of gallstone pain. At the end of the article, you will learn about ways to treat a gallbladder attack naturally.

What Does a Gallbladder Attack Feel Like?

A gallbladder attack is commonly called cholecystitis, which is inflammation of the gallbladder, and results in sharp pain in the upper right abdomen.

Dr. Ali A. Siddiqui, a specialist in gastroenterology, says that a gallbladder attack starts off as excruciating, sudden abdominal pain. The gallbladder pain gradually intensifies and peaks around 15 to 60 minutes after the initial stabbing pain. After that, the intense abdominal aching can stay constant for up to 6 hours or longer. The pain usually gets worse if you press on the area just under your right ribs.1

Pain from a gallbladder attack isn’t just localized to the area under your right ribcage. The intensifying pain can also radiate to your right shoulder and cause shoulder blade pain and middle back pain. Usually, the nagging abdominal pain lasts for a few days after the initial attack and the pain should completely go away within a week.

In some cases, a cholecystitis attack may actually feel as if you are having a heart attack. The journal Military Medicine reports that acute cholecystitis can mimic symptoms of cardiac arrest. The chest pain from a gallbladder attack can even show up on an electrocardiogram (ECG) test as a heart problem.2

Other symptoms of a gallbladder attack include nausea and vomiting, fever, chills, and even diarrhea. Your stool may become grayish-white color and your urine may have dark yellow or even a brownish color.

What Does the Gallbladder Do and Where Is It Located?

Your gallbladder is a small hollow organ located under the liver in your right upper abdominal area. Its primary role is storing bile produced by the liver to help break down fats in food.

PubMed Health states that your gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped sac that contains yellow, brownish or olive-green digestive bile produced by the liver. Bile is made up of cholesterol, salts, and bile pigments like bilirubin – the compound that is responsible for the color of your urine and stool.3

When you consume foods, bile flows from the gallbladder to the small intestine to help break down fat in the digestion process. The connection between gallbladder attack and fatty foods explains why diet is important to help manage gallbladder problems.

Signs and Symptoms of a Gallbladder Attack

How can you tell that you have gallstones that are causing a gallbladder attack? Here are the main symptoms of acute cholecystitis.

Abdomen pain (mid or upper-right section)

The main symptom of gallbladder inflammation or a blockage in the bile duct is upper abdominal pain in the center or right side.

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Dr. Valerie Halpin, a bariatric surgeon, reports that the main reason for a cholecystitis attack is gallstones. This may or may not cause an infection in the biliary system. However, persistent right upper quadrant (RUQ) pain is common in most cases. The pain attacks can happen suddenly and cause steady right-sided abdominal pain that can last for many hours. After the initial gallbladder attack, the pain can become a dull abdominal ache that lasts for a few days.4

According to Dr. Charles Patrick Davis on MedicineNet, gallbladder abdominal pain comes from either blockage of the bile ducts or inflammation from an infection of the gallbladder. Gallbladder pain is often referred to as biliary colic.5

Back pain and shoulder pain

Symptoms of gallstones that cause a gallbladder attack can also include pain that travels from your right abdomen to the shoulder blade.

Dr. Alan A. Bloom from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine says that gallstone pain frequently radiates to the right shoulder. Right scapula pain can become persistent and you may also have aches and discomfort between your shoulder blades.6

Chest pains

Another sign of a gallbladder attack is pains in the middle of your chest after eating a meal.

Chest pain can be a symptom of many medical conditions including cardiac pain, indigestion, or a pulled muscle. In the journal Gut, researchers reported that gallbladder attacks are a reason for noncardiac chest pain.7

In fact, gallbladder inflammation can cause irregularities in an ECG test which may make doctors misdiagnose gallbladder pain.8

It’s important to remember that you should always see your doctor for any type of unexplained pressing chest pains. Both a heart attack and gallbladder infection can have serious consequences if you don’t get the appropriate medical attention.

Nausea and vomiting

Nausea and vomiting that accompanies intense RUQ (right upper quadrant) pain are very often symptomatic of a gallstone attack.

The journal Gastroenterology Nursing stats that acute cholecystitis that lasts for longer than 12 hours is often accompanied by digestive upset. This can include nausea, vomiting, and a general feeling of being unwell.

Fever and chills

Although fever and chills can be a symptom of many conditions, they are usually present if the gallbladder attack is caused by an infection.

The journal Annals of Emergency Medicine reported on a study showing that about 30% of cases of acute cholecystitis is accompanied by fever.9 The gallbladder attack can happen after eating a fatty meal, and the obstruction in the bile duct could result in a fever and shivering.27

However, not all people with gallbladder problems show signs of fever. Doctors say that a fever is just one of the many possible signs of gallbladder problems.

Indigestion and acid reflux

A sudden gallbladder attack can also cause a burning sensation in your chest after eating a meal because of indigestion.

A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology found that most patients with some sort of gallstone pain also show signs of indigestion. It was discovered that around 90% of people who suffer gallstone attacks also have chest pain associated with acid reflux. The pain attacks usually occurred in the evening and were often preceded by fatty meals.10

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Baking soda and water is an effective natural antacid that can help to quickly relieve the symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux.

Diarrhea

Issues with your gallbladder can upset your digestive system and trigger a gallbladder attack with diarrhea.

Doctors from the National Health Service say that fatty foods or spicy meals may trigger symptoms of diarrhea in people with gallstones. If you notice that you frequently have diarrhea after eating certain foods, try to avoid them to help prevent gallbladder attacks.11

To help address digestive problems that cause diarrhea, you can try taking probiotics to improve your digestive health and give your immune system a boost.

Changes in stool color

If you have noticed that your stools have become grayish-white, you probably have a serious issue with your gallbladder or gallstones.

Changes in stool color can be an indicator that your gallbladder isn’t functioning properly. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic say that clay-colored stools after a gallbladder attack happen because of a lack of bile in your digestive system. White or pale stools could be an indicator of a gallstone blocking your bile duct. Along with whitish stool, you will probably show other symptoms of gallbladder problems.12

Dark urine

Inflammation that triggers a gallbladder attack can affect your biliary system and turn your urine a dark brownish color.

Researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease report that gallstones that block bile ducts for more than a few hours can cause a gallbladder attack. Bile pigment from the gallbladder usually turns your pee a bright yellow color. However, dark tea-colored urine could indicate that there is a blockage in your biliary system.13

Dark urine can also be a sign that your body is lacking water. If you are drinking enough fluids, your urine should be a light pale straw color. Cloudy urine can also be a sign of a urinary tract infection, especially if you have a burning sensation when peeing.

Jaundice

Individuals experiencing a severe gallbladder attack may show signs of yellowish-skin or yellow color in the whites of their eyes.

The journal Acta Chirugica Scandinavica reports that swelling and inflammation of the gallbladder can result in a reduction of bile. Acute gallbladder attacks can then result in jaundice that turns the skin a yellow color. In many cases, surgery is needed to remove the gallbladder and restore normal function to the digestive system.14

Bloating

Gallbladder attack symptoms also include abdominal bloating and discomfort.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins say that a cholecystitis attack can cause bloating along with right upper quadrant pain. The gallbladder attack can last for 2 or 3 days and you may have bloating for the majority of this time.15

Of course, bloating and gas can be signs and symptoms of other types of digestive upset. If you are troubled by bloating, you can try some of my home remedies to improve your digestion.

Food intolerances

Gallstones and gallbladder problems can cause an increase in food intolerances. A German medical journal, Der Chirurg, listed food intolerances as one of the symptoms of gallstone-related conditions. 16

Unexplained weight loss

In some cases, repeated gallbladder attacks can result in unintended weight loss and even chronic eating disorders.

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The Southern Medical Journal reports that, in some cases, gallstones that block the bile duct can lead to unexplained weight loss. Very often, doctors fail to recognize gallstones as a cause of eating disorders and unintended weight loss. However, bile duct obstructions can cause anorexia without the classic symptoms of gallbladder issues.17

Other Signs and Symptoms of Gallbladder Pain

Some people have gallstones without any recognizable symptoms and may only rarely have a gallbladder attack. However, for other people, gallstones can cause all of the above-mentioned symptoms as well as other complications.

Biliary colic (gallstone pain). A gallbladder attack can cause sudden colicky pain that gradually increases in intensity. The pain attack can last for up to 5 hours and then subside to a mild abdominal ache.

Cholecystitis but no gallstones. Damage to your gallbladder can result in symptoms of cholecystitis without the presence of gallstones. This can cause symptoms of a severe gallbladder attack.

Pancreatitis. A blocked bile duct can also result in inflammation of the pancreas which can also cause right upper abdominal pain, tenderness in the abdominal area, and pain after eating.

Infection of the biliary system. A gallbladder attack can also result in cholangitis which is inflammation of the biliary system. This may be accompanied by symptoms like jaundice, low blood pressure, and confusion.

How to Relieve a Gallbladder Attack

Treating a gallbladder attack involves trying to ease the burning pain and feeling of pressure in the upper abdomen. Also, some home remedies like apple cider vinegar can help with treating symptoms of a sudden gallbladder attack. Peppermint, changes in diet, and taking certain vitamin and mineral supplements can also help to prevent gallbladder pain.

Apple cider vinegar for gallstones

There is some anecdotal evidence that apple cider vinegar can help to provide gallbladder attack pain relief. In fact, Dr. Charles Patrick Davis says that many people drink diluted apple cider vinegar to get relief during a gallbladder attack.5

Many people point to the fact that the acidic nature of apple cider vinegar helps to soften gallstones and help to get rid of gallstones quicker. Some people report that drinking apple cider vinegar can help to quickly alleviate the intense pain that gallstones cause.

Another reason why apple cider vinegar could be an effective remedy in halting a gallbladder attack is that it contains pectin. Clinical trials have shown that pectin can help to reduce the size of gallstones and help gallstone disease to go into regression.21

Peppermint

To help get relief from the painful symptoms of gallstones, you can try drinking peppermint tea or taking enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules to relax and cool inflammation in your gallbladder.

A small study published in the journal Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics reported that a mixture of peppermint oil and caraway oil can help relieve gastrointestinal issues. It was found that taking 90 mg peppermint oil with 50 mg caraway oil had a relaxing effect on the gallbladder. This can help to quickly relieve gallstone pain and help the gallbladder function better.18

Turmeric and honey

Another home remedy to stop or prevent a gallbladder attack is to take a combination of turmeric and honey.

The journal Lipids in Health and Disease published research on the effects of turmeric and piperine on gallstones. It was found that regular supplementation of turmeric helped to prevent the formation of gallstones. Turmeric also had a positive effect on the health of the liver and has an anti-inflammatory effect in the digestive system.19

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Although there are no studies directly linking consuming honey to soothing gallbladder attacks, research has shown that honey has a positive overall effect on the digestive system. For example, honey has natural antibiotic properties and can help to improve gut microbial balance.20

Please read this article to find out how to make your own golden honey mixture to improve your digestive system.

Can You Stop a Gallbladder Attack While It Is Happening?

You can help to quickly get rid of the excruciating pain during a gallbladder attack by drinking a mixture of apple cider vinegar (ACV) and apple juice. There is an anecdotal evidence that apple juice helps to dissolve gallstones, so the body can get rid of them easily. 28

For this gallbladder remedy, you should use raw apple cider vinegar with the mother, like the type of ACV that Bragg produce.

How to use apple cider vinegar to stop a gallbladder attack:

  1. Mix 2 tablespoons raw organic apple cider vinegar with 8-oz. apple juice.
  2. Add a teaspoon of raw honey to improve the sharp taste.
  3. Drink the ACV remedy to help quickly get rid of gallstone pain and reduce the effects of the attack.

The addition of raw honey in the apple cider vinegar helps to boost the effectiveness of the remedy.

Gallbladder Attack and Your Diet – What is the Connection?

There are certain foods that trigger gallbladder attacks and, therefore, you should be careful with your diet if you have gallstones.

According to research published in the Journal of Health, Population and Nutrition, certain foods are connected to gallbladder attacks. For example, gallstone pain is common after eating red and processed meat and foods with a high-fat content. Researchers point to the fact that cholesterol in fatty foods can increase cholesterol deposits in the gallbladder.22

Doctors from the National Health Service say that eating a healthy, well-balanced diet with moderate amounts of fat can help to control gallstone pain.11

The journal Alternative Medicine Review reported that other foods that can trigger gallbladder attacks are:23

  • Foods that are high in cholesterol
  • Fried foods
  • Foods containing high levels of refined sugars
  • Large amounts of legumes in the diet
  • Foods that lack fiber

What foods are good to eat when your gallbladder is acting up?

Because there is a connection between the frequency of gallbladder attacks and your diet, you should also eat foods that are healthy for your gallbladder.

Dr. Venkat Mohan, a specialist on gastroenterology issues, recommends including the following foods if you are prone to gallbladder attacks:24

  • Foods containing whole grains like oats, brown rice, or whole-grain bread
  • Foods that contain plenty of dietary fiber
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Lean meat, fish, and poultry
  • Switching to a vegetarian diet23
  • Moderate amount of coffee to stimulate bile flow23

The book StatPearls says that, in some cases, sticking to a bland, low-fat diet can help to prevent gallbladder attacks.25

When to See a Doctor

Frequent gallbladder attacks require medical advice from a qualified medical doctor. If left untreated, cholecystitis can lead to serious complications like a gallbladder tear.

Doctors from the Cleveland Clinic say that if you have occasional or frequent gallbladder attacks, you should see your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:26

  • Frequent attacks of abdominal pain in the upper right area
  • The pain from a gallbladder attack spreads to your right shoulder blade
  • Nausea and vomiting with abdominal pain
  • Fever and shivering
  • Bloating
  • Yellowish skin and/or eyes
  • You don’t get any pain relief from home remedies or passing gas

Gallbladder pain or gallstones doesn’t automatically mean that doctors recommend gallbladder removal as it may have some side effects. The most common medical advice is to have a “wait-and-see” approach and then monitor your symptoms.

Read my related articles:

Medical Sources

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  3. NCBI. How does the gallbladder work?
  4. BMJ Clin Evid. 2014; 2014: 0411.
  5. MedicineNet. Gallbladder pain.
  6. Medscape. Cholecystitis clinical presentation.
  7. Gut. 1998 Jul; 43(1): 105–110.
  8. JSLS. 2011 Jan-Mar; 15(1): 105–108.
  9. Ann Emerg Med.1996 Sep;28(3):273-7.
  10. Scand J Gastroenterol.2006 Jan;41(1):93-101.
  11. NHS. Gallstones.
  12. MayoClinic. What would cause a person to have white stool?
  13. NIDDK. Symptoms & cause of gallstones.
  14. Acta Chir Scand.1983;149(6):597-601.
  15. HopkinsMedicine. Cholecystitis.
  16. Chirurg. 1991 Jun;62(6):462-6.
  17. South Med J.1993 Feb;86(2):239-41.
  18. Aliment Pharmacol Ther.2003 Feb;17(3):445-51.
  19. Lipids Health Dis. 2015; 14: 100.
  20. Food Quality Safety. 2017 May; 1(2): 107-115.
  21. Experientia. 1984 Apr 15;40(4):350-1.
  22. J Health Popul Nutr. 2015 Mar; 33(1): 39–49.
  23. Altern Med Rev. 2009; 14(3): 258-267.
  24. WebMD. Gallbladder diet.
  25. NCBI. Gallbladder, cholecystitis, chronic.
  26. ClevelandClinic. Gallbladder swelling & inflammation.
  27. Gastroenterol Nurs. 2014 Nov-Dec; 37(6): 407–414.
  28. The Lancet. Apple juice and the chemical-contact softening of gallstones.
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