The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ on the right side of the abdomen, beneath the liver. This organ holds a digestive fluid called bile that’s released into the small intestine. This fluid can sometimes harden to form stone-like deposits called gallstones.
The cause of gallstones is often unknown, but can be attributed to an excess of cholesterol or bilirubin in the bile. Gallstones range in size and severity; some people who have gallstones have no symptoms, are unbothered by symptoms, and require no treatment; other patients experience severe pain and require surgery to remove the gallbladder.
Risk factors for gallstones include:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- High-fat, low-fiber diet
- Female gender
- Over 40 years of age
- Native American or Mexican American heritage
- Overweight or obese
- Family history of gallstones
- Medications that contain estrogen, such as oral contraceptives
- Diabetes or liver disease
Gallstones don’t always cause symptoms, however if a gallstone becomes lodged in a duct and causes a blockage, patients may experience symptoms such as sudden and rapidly intensifying pain in the upper right portion or center of the abdomen, back pain between the shoulder blades, pain in the right shoulder, nausea or vomiting. These symptoms can last from several minutes to several hours. As always, patients should seek immediate medical attention if their abdominal pain is so intense they can’t find a comfortable position when seated or standing, if there is yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, or if they have a high fever with chills. These are signs of a serious gallbladder complication.