Gallbladder pain can be sudden, intense, and severe.

What does gallbladder pain feel like? 

Your gallbladder is a small sac that’s located in your right upper abdomen, just below your liver. According to the Canadian Society for Intestinal Research, your liver stores bile — a digestive fluid — that’s made by your liver.

Gallstone pain

Bile helps break down fats during digestion and is made up of different substances, such as:

  • cholesterol
  • salts
  • water

Your liver continually makes bile until you consume food. When you eat, your stomach releases a hormone that causes muscles around your gallbladder to release the bile.

Gallbladder pain is an indication that something isn’t right.

When gallstones cause a blockage of one of the ducts that move bile, they can trigger sudden and escalating pain, which is sometimes dubbed a “gallstone attack.”

Pain location

The pain is usually felt in your upper right abdomen but can spread to your upper back or shoulder blade.

Some people also experience pain in the center of their abdomen, just below their breastbone. This discomfort can last several minutes to a few hours.

A 2012 research review showed that up to 15 percent of adults in the United States have or will have gallstones.

Gallstones don’t always lead to pain. According to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, studies show that about 50 percent of patients with gallstones don’t experience symptoms.

Gallbladder inflammation pain

Inflammation of your gallbladder, a condition called cholecystitis, commonly happens when gallstones block the tube leading out of your gallbladder. This produces bile buildup, which can cause inflammation.

Other conditions can also trigger inflammation of your gallbladder, including:

  • tumors
  • serious illnesses
  • bile duct problems
  • certain infections

Symptoms of cholecystitis may include:

  • severe pain in your upper right abdomen or center of your abdomen
  • pain that spreads to your right shoulder or back
  • tenderness above your abdomen
  • nausea or vomiting
  • fever

These symptoms often happen after eating, especially following a large or fatty meal. If untreated, cholecystitis can lead to serious, even life threatening complications, such as:

  • a gallbladder rupture (where your gallbladder wall leaks or bursts)
  • infection
  • gangrene (when tissue in your gallbladder dies)

Gallbladder infection pain

A gallbladder infection is another condition that can occur when a gallstone causes an obstruction. When the bile builds up, it can become infected and lead to a rupture or abscess.

Symptoms of a gallbladder infection may include:

  • abdominal pain
  • fever
  • trouble breathing
  • confusion

What other symptoms may accompany gallbladder pain? 

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, if you’re having a gallstone attack, you may also experience other symptoms, such as:

  • nausea or vomiting
  • tenderness in the area surrounding your gallbladder
  • low-grade fever
  • light-colored stool
  • brownish-colored urine
  • yellowing or discoloration of your skin or whites of your eyes

Are there other conditions that mimic gallbladder pain?

According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, other conditions may cause symptoms that feel similar to gallbladder pain. Some of these include:

  • Gallbladder cancer. Gallbladder cancer can cause abdominal pain, itching, bloating, and fever. Imaging tests may help your doctor determine if the pain you feel is due to cancer or gallstones.
  • Appendicitis. Appendicitis typically causes pain in the lower right side of your abdomen, while you can usually feel gallbladder pain in the upper to the mid-right area, towards your back.
  • Heart attack. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, sometimes, people mistake gallbladder pain for symptoms of a heart attack. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, other heart attack symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain, weakness, and jaw, neck, or back pain.
  • Pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is inflammation of your pancreas. This condition may cause pain that feels similar to a gallbladder attack. But with pancreatitis, you may also experience other symptoms, such as weight loss, a fast heart rate, and oily or foul-smelling stools, according to the University of Iowa.
  • Ulcers. Sometimes, ulcers can cause abdominal pain, but they can also trigger burning stomach pain, bloating, a fullness feeling, burping, heartburn, and other symptoms.
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases. Certain bowel diseases may mimic signs of gallbladder pain, but they also cause diarrhea, bloody stool, and weight loss.
  • Gastroenteritis. Also known as the “stomach flu,” gastroenteritis may be mistaken for a gallbladder issue. Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhea, and cramping are hallmarks of the stomach flu.
  • Kidney stones. Kidney stones can cause sharp pains in your abdomen, side, and back. You might also have pink, red, or brown urine, foul-smelling urine, cloudy urine, or a constant need to urinate.

When should you call a doctor or go to the emergency room?

You should call your doctor if you have any symptoms of gallbladder pain that concern you.

Certain complications of a gallstone attack can be serious or life threatening. You should seek immediate medical care if you develop:

  • severe abdominal pain
  • yellowing or discoloration of your skin or whites of your eyes
  • a high fever with chills

Doctors may perform different tests to diagnose your condition, including an:

  • ultrasound
  • blood test
  • another type of imaging test

What’s the best way to alleviate gallbladder pain? 

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, there’s not much you can do to stop a gallbladder attack while it’s happening.

You may want to apply a heated compress to the area to relieve the discomfort. Usually, the pain will ease once the gallstone has passed.

Traditional treatment options for gallbladder attack include surgery to remove your gallbladder or medicines to help dissolve the gallstones.

You might be able to prevent a gallstone attack by reducing your fatty food intake and maintaining a healthy weight.

Some other measures that could lower your chances of having gallbladder pain include:

  • Eating on a schedule. Skipping meals or fasting may increase the risk of gallstones.
  • Eat more fiber. Foods like veggies, fruits, and whole grains contain lots of fiber.
  • Try to lose weight slowly. If you lose weight too quickly, you’re at an increased risk for developing gallstones. Aim for 1 to 2 pounds a week.
  • Exercise. According to the Canadian Society for Intestinal Research, studies show that regular physical activity can lessen your chances of gallstones.
  • Check your meds. Some medicines, such as postmenopausal hormones, may boost the risk of gallbladder disease.
  • Try magnesium. Studies suggest that males who consume the most magnesium have a lower risk of developing gallstone disease.

Medical reference: Healthline