Gallbladder / Pancreas - Female Organs - Human AnatomyGallbladder pain can be the result of gallstones or cholecystitis (which is an inflammation or infection of the gallbladder. About 10-20 percent of us will suffer from gallstones, and cholecystitis can result in about 1/3 of cases.  There are about 500,000 gallbladder surgeries each year in the US.  Women have 2-3 times the incidence of gallstones; the reasons for this are believed to be related to the presence of female hormones.

What is the typical gallbladder pain location?

The gallbladder is a small sac that hold bile that was made in the liver.  It is located beneath and slightly behind the liver itself. (Shown as yellow in the picture.) As these structures are located in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, many people with gallbladder pain will experience their pain in the upper right side of the abdomen.

Occasionally, the pain will radiate to the back.  Others may have generalized abdominal pain, especially if the gallbladder is severely diseased and has ruptured, leaking bile into the abdominal space.

While right upper quadrant abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of gallbladder disease, there are other symptoms that may accompany the pain.  Nausea and indigestion are common, especially if the gallbladder is inflamed.

The pain is generally felt as a dull, aching sensation in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen; however, in people who have their bile ducts blocked suddenly by a gallstone, the pain can be sharp and colicky, resulting in the need to have an urgent evaluation of the pain in the emergency department or doctor’s office.

The diagnosis of gallbladder pain can be made by hearing a history of right upper quadrant abdominal pain and the experience of nausea, vomiting, and clay colored stools. The doctor may be able to elicit this kind of pain by pressing on the right upper quadrant of the abdomen.  If gallbladder disease is expected, an ultrasound can be performed to look for gallstones and thickening of the wall of the gallbladder (in cases of inflammation).

There is another test that can be done if it is suspected that the bile ducts are blocked by gallstones.  This is called an ERCP, also known as an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography.   In this study, dye is injected in the Ampulla of Vater, which is where the bile spills out into the duodenum. If there is blockage, the stone can be removed as part of an ERCP in order to open up the bile ducts again.  The bile will drain out and the right upper quadrant pain may eventually resolve.

What you should do if you have symptoms of gallbladder disease?

If you are experiencing a dull, aching sensation in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, especially if you have the other symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and clay colored stools, contact your doctor right away.  An ultrasound can be ordered that will focus on this area of the abdomen.

If instead you develop the sudden onset of sharp colicky pain, you may have a blocked bile duct and may wish to be seen immediately in an emergency department setting.  There, they can confirm the presence of stones in the bile duct and can use ERCP or a gallbladder removal in order to manage the pain.