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Are you having a gallbladder attack? Find out more about the causes, symptoms and treatment

Read time: 5 mins

A gallbladder attack can happen at a moment’s notice and cause aggressive pain. It’s caused by gallstones, which are formed when bile and minerals in your gallbladder combine to make hard deposits. The gallbladder tries to pass these through the bile duct, and they often become stuck.

If you don’t know what’s causing you sudden, severe pain, it can be scary, but the reality is that gallstones are rarely serious; even if the pain you’re in might make you think otherwise!

Here, we explain what a gallbladder attack feels like, what symptoms to look out for, and what gallstones treatments are available.

What does the gallbladder do?

The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped pouch that stores bile made by the liver. It contains cholesterol, bilirubin, and bile salts. When we eat, the stomach releases a hormone that tells the gallbladder to contract. This releases bile, which helps break down fat and aids digestion.

Despite the gallbladder helping with digestion, it isn’t essential to the process. Many people have their gallbladder removed when they suffer from painful gallstones, and go on to live perfectly normal lives.

How common are gallstones?

Gallstones are very common, affecting roughly one in ten adults in the UK. Whilst some people are more at risk of developing gallstones, including women (especially those who have had children), and people who are obese or overweight, gallstones can affect anyone.

The most common cause of gallstones is an imbalance in the composition of the bile. Having too much cholesterol or bilirubin, or not enough bile salts, can cause these stones to form.

Gallstones can be as tiny as a grain of sand, so for the vast majority, gallstones pass through the body without causing any problems.

However, gallstones do sometimes get stuck in the bile duct and block the flow of bile, causing sudden and sharp pain. In these cases, you may need gallstones treatment.

What are the symptoms of gallstones?

In most cases, gallstones will not cause any symptoms, but when gallstones become trapped in your bile duct, you might suffer from a gallbladder attack. A gallbladder attack usually causes a sudden gnawing pain that gets progressively worse.

You may also experience other concerns, such as nausea or sickness and a high temperature, especially if it develops into acute cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder).

Inflammation of the gallbladder can also cause jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin). This happens when blocked bile returns to the liver and seeps into the skin.

However, jaundice can also be the symptom of a more serious condition, such as liver disease.

What does a gallbladder attack feel like?

A gallbladder attack causes intense pain that feels like a knife to your abdomen. Although it usually happens after eating a large or fatty meal — since this causes the gallbladder to release more bile — a gallbladder attack can’t be anticipated, and there isn’t much you can do except wait for the pain to pass.

The pain might be in the centre of your stomach, just under the breastbone, to the side, or even in your back. This pain might last for minutes or hours and be incredibly uncomfortable, making it hard for you to sit still.

If you’re suffering from a gallbladder attack, the best thing to do is take quick, shallow breaths. Breathing deeply causes the diaphragm to put pressure on the liver, which further aggravates the gallbladder.

How are gallstones treated?

If you have gallstones blocking your bile duct, you may need gastrointestinal treatment. The most common gallstones treatment is a cholecystectomy to remove the gallbladder.

Confirming you have gallstones

Before you’re booked in for surgery, a Gastroenterologist will need to run tests to confirm that your pain is caused by gallstones.

The most common is an ultrasound scan. This is a quick and painless procedure, but you may feel uncomfortable if you’re experiencing a gallbladder attack.

Sometimes, the ultrasound can also detect stones in your bile duct, but not always. In this case, you may need an MRI scan.

Having your gallbladder removed

In most cases, keyhole surgery is the best course of action for removing the gallbladder. Known as a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, it’s a common and straightforward procedure carried out under general anaesthetic. Before surgery, you will need to fast from food and water. During the operation, a gastrointestinal Surgeon will make three or four small cuts in your abdomen and a larger cut (around two to three centimetres) by your belly button. They will also temporarily inflate your abdomen using carbon dioxide gas, which makes it easier to see your organs.

Then, using special tools and a laparoscope (a long, thin telescope with a camera attached), your Surgeon will remove your gallbladder. The carbon dioxide gas escapes through the laparoscope, and your surgeon will use disposable stitches to close the cuts.

In most cases, this is a short operation that takes no longer than 90 minutes, and you can usually go home the same day.

In rare situations, though, your Surgeon might need to convert your operation into open surgery. This usually happens if you have gallstones in your bile duct. Here, the Surgeon will make a larger incision across your stomach to remove your gallbladder.

How to recover after having your gallbladder removed

If you have keyhole surgery for your gallstones treatment, you can usually leave hospital the same day or the next morning. You’ll likely feel sore for a few days, but you can return to most of your normal activities within two weeks.

Since dissolvable stitches are typically used, they’ll usually disappear within a week or two.

If you have open surgery, it’ll take you slightly longer to recover. You will need to stay in hospital for three to five days, and it may take up to eight weeks to fully recover.

In this case, your surgeon will have likely used non-dissolvable stitches, so you’ll need to have them removed by a nurse around a week after your cholecystectomy. Before you leave the hospital, a nurse or Consultant will talk to you about looking after your wound and stitches, along with when you can remove your dressings and have a shower or bath.

What to expect after gallstones treatment

After having your gallbladder removed, your liver will continue to produce bile to help you digest your food, but as it can’t be stored in your gallbladder, it will drip continuously into your digestive system.

Most people can enjoy eating normally after recovery, but you should aim to have a healthy balanced diet. You may find that some foods cause bloating or reflux, which can be uncomfortable. You can usually manage this by cutting down on or avoiding foods that trigger your symptoms.

A gallbladder attack can be painful and intense, but gallstones treatment is safe and very common. If you want to explore your options, get in touch with our world-leading private Gastroenterologists by filling in the contact form.

Posted on: 11 January 2024