A gallbladder attack can last from one hour to five hours or even up to eight hours, and then it goes away on its own. The attack indicates that the gallbladder is not functioning normally and that something is wrong.
The main symptom of a gallbladder attack is pain that occurs in the middle of the abdomen between the belly button and the breastbone under the right ribs. The pain can be in the form of a mild or severe discomfort and you may feel a sharp pain that spreads to the sides or to the shoulder blade. It is also called biliary colic.
The pain can be triggered by fatty or large meals and it takes place a few hours after eating. Steady pain after meals may be a symptom of gallbladder stones. It may also wake you up at night. An attack can recur after a week or after many years, each time with different severity. In some cases gallbladder attacks are infrequent. For some, the pain can be relieved by walking.
To some, the pain can be relieved by walking
Other Symptoms of A Gallbladder Attack
The pain alone should not be the only symptom you should rely on to know if it is a gallbladder attack, because you may experience similar pains with problems such as gastric ulcers, heart pains, kidney stones and pneumonia.
Other symptoms you should look out for include vomiting, nausea, chills or fever, diarrhea, stools or urine with unusual color, and jaundice.
This is the other most noticeable symptom of gall bladder problem other than the pain. It involves yellowing of the skin and in some cases yellowing of the whites of the eyes. It signifies a blockage in the gall bladder by gallstones so that instead of draining to the intestines, bile goes back to the liver or leaks into the bloodstream.
The stools may be lightly colored or urine may be dark, which is a sign of a blockage in the bile duct.
Chills or fever are a sign of infection.
What Causes Gallbladder Attacks?
Gallbladder attacks occur when the gallbladder is inflamed due to tumors, gallstones, the gallbladder having excessive bile, perforated gallbladder, gallbladder polyps or other problems in the gallbladder.
The gallbladder is a sac-shaped organ under the liver on the right side of the abdomen, just below the ribcage. The organ is connected to the liver and to the intestines using bile ducts which carry the bile produced by the liver.
When the bile is produced by the liver, it contains bile salts, water, cholesterol, fats and waste products such as bilirubin. Some of it goes to the intestines via the common bile duct while the rest goes to the gallbladder via the cystic duct.
Upon getting to the gallbladder, some of the contents are removed to obtain concentrated bile. This bile is then released into the intestines for the digestion of fats. It breaks down the fat contained in food into small droplets that can be absorbed to the body. The bile also enables the body to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K from the food in the gut.
One of the causes of a gallbladder attack is gallstones. These hard lumps form in the gallbladder. They look like stones and can be small or large and it may take years for them to grow. It can be one or several of them.
Gallstones are formed when there is an imbalance in the chemicals forming the bile. There are three types of gallstones; cholesterol stones, pure pigment stones and mixed stones.
Cholesterol stones are formed when the levels of cholesterol are more than the levels of bile acids in the bile. This makes the cholesterol solidify. According to research, dietary factors such as having diets with high cholesterol, refined sugars, saturated fat and low fiber can increase the risk of development of cholesterol gallstones. The high level of cholesterol in women during pregnancy and in their fertile years may also explain why gallstones are more common in women than in men.
Pigment gallstones are formed where there is excess bilirubin in the bile. This may be caused by sickle cell disease.
Reduced flow of bile can also cause the formation of gallstones. Some of the causes of reduced flow include a damaged liver or damaged biliary track, in which case there is not enough secretion of bile or there is no flow. Another cause of reduced bile flow can be long fasting periods where less bile is needed for digestion.
Gallstones can result in an inflamed gallbladder causing infection, pain and other complications.Gallstone blockage is also one of the main causes of gallbladder attacks. These occur when the gallstones block bile ducts, thereby increasing pressure in the gallbladder due to the buildup of bile and even rupture. The bile may also go back to the liver causing jaundice.
A gallbladder infection can also occur if gallstones obstruct a duct that moves bile to the intestines from the gallbladder. This means that the bile is not draining into the intestines, which can cause rupture, blood stream infection, gallbladder gangrene and abscess.
How to Know if You Have a Gallbladder Infection
A gallbladder infection needs urgent medical attention. It is therefore important to know the signs and symptoms you should look out for. These include:
Gallbladder pain. In most cases, an infection in the gallbladder will cause severe pain which may begin in the center or right upper abdomen. After a while, the pain intensifies and spreads to other areas and can last for more than six hours. This makes the pain different from what is experienced during a gallbladder attack.
Fever. If you experience fever in addition to the pain, then it’s likely that it is a gallbladder infection. If you have symptoms related to gallbladder problems and then experience a sudden rise in temperature, then it could be a rupture, gallbladder gangrene or a bloodstream infection.
Rapid breathing, confusion and heart palpitations. If the gallbladder infection finds its way into the bloodstream, then you may experience these symptoms.
Gastrointestinal disturbances. When the gallbladder is infected or inflamed, it does not function normally and therefore there is reduced activity in the intestines. This leads to abdominal problems.
Although you can live with gallstones for many years without noticing any symptoms, an attack or test can confirm their existence.
Gallstones and Pancreatitis
Gallstones can also cause pancreatitis or the inflammation of the pancreas. This occurs when gallstones are stuck where the pancreatic duct and common bile duct meet. This means that the bile and the pancreatic juice cannot flow to the intestines.
When the pancreatic juice goes back to the pancreas, it causes inflammation. This is characterized by abdominal pain, which is more centralized unlike the gallbladder pain that is more to the right side.
How Long Does Pancreatitis Last?
Pancreatitis pain resolves itself after a few days when the gallstone moves, though sometimes it can be life threatening. Other symptoms that come with the pain include vomiting, nausea, increased blood pressure, increased pain after eating, fainting, fatigue, tenderness of stomach area, increased heart rate and fever.
Who is at Risk of Gallstones?
Although anyone may have gallstones, some people have a higher predisposition. They include:
Those taking estrogen medication such as in hormonal replacement therapy.
Those with a family history with gallstones
Those aged 60 and above
Those who have a diet high in cholesterol and fat
Those with diabetes
Obese or overweight people
2. Gallbladder Inflammation
Another cause of a gallbladder attack is gallbladder inflammation, also known as cholecystitis, which can be acute or chronic. Tumors or gallstones may cause the disease.
Acute cholecystitis presents itself as a pain in the upper part of the abdomen on the right side from the middle. The pain varies from dull aches to sharp pangs and can spread to the right shoulder. Other symptoms that may come along with the pain may include vomiting, nausea and abdominal pain.
Chronic cholecystitis occurs if there are several attacks of acute cholecystitis. It is accompanied by nausea, bloating and gas, in addition to the pain. In this case, the gallbladder starts to shrink and it stops functioning, so that it no longer stores and releases bile.
How to Treat a Gallbladder Attack
Treatment for a gallbladder attack depends on the cause. If the cause is gallstones, the pain is not frequent or severe, and there is no fever, a “wait and see" approach can be taken. However, this depends on the diagnostic tests where the physician determines that waiting is better than removal. The patient is usually given pain relievers for gallbladder attack relief and oral antibiotics.
If the pain is severe, there are gallstones but there is no infection or inflammation of the gallbladder. In this case, intravenous painkillers may be used. Some people may opt to remove the gallbladder, or choose drug therapy or lithotripsy which involves breaking of the stones using an electric charge or laser if the stones have a diameter that is less than 2 cm.
For an inflamed gallbladder or acute cholecystitis, the most common treatment is surgery to remove the gallbladder. A severe condition may require the procedure to be done immediately. The surgery can be done using a less invasive procedure called laparoscopy.