When you’ve got stomach pain, it may be because you ate something that’s undercooked, or maybe because you ate too fast. But when the pain is unusually intense, you might be suffering from a more serious affliction.
The first thing that may pop into your mind is appendicitis, the painful and sometimes deadly inflammation of the appendix. But there’s another health condition that can cause abnormally severe stomach pain that isn’t on most people’s minds: a gallbladder attack.
The gallbladder is an organ that sits just under the liver on the right side of the torso, just below the ribs. It helps your body break down fats and store bile, an alkaline fluid produced by the liver that helps with digestion.
“When you eat, your gallbladder contracts and shoots bile into the intestine,” says Doctor Kyle Staller, Master of Public Health and gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “That serves as a soap to help break up fats.”
Squeeky Wheel Gets The Grease
You could go your whole life without giving a second thought to your gallbladder, until there’s a problem with it. But similar to other parts of your body, there’s specific issues only it faces. And in the case of the gallbladder, it’s the gallstone.
A gallstone is a hard crystalline mass formed abnormally in the gallbladder. They range in size, from the size of a grain of sand to that of a golf ball. Gallstones become a problem when they prevent your gallbladder from excreting bile as it normally would.
What happens then is the gallstone gets wedged inside a duct that leads to the small intestine. This is called a gallbladder attack and as the name implies, is an excruciating feeling. “It’s exquisitely painful,” Dr. Staller says.
There are two different kinds of gallstones, one being a cholesterol gallstone, which is made up of undissolved cholesterol that comes together to form a hardened mass. This type of gallstone can be identified by its yellow color.
The second variety is called a pigment gallstone, which is usually a dark brown or black color. These form when your bile contains too much bilirubin, a chemical your body produces as it breaks down red blood cells.
There are other factors that can contribute to gallstone formation. One such example is when your bile doesn’t contain enough bile salts. Bile salts are compounds that help break down fat. Another example is when your gallbladder isn’t emptying fully or empties at a low frequency.
Most gallbladder attacks happen after a person eats a heavy, fatty meal. The attack can last for just a few minutes if you’re lucky, and sometimes up to several hours if you’re not. But it’s important to understand that not every gallstone results in a gallbladder attack.
In fact, gallstones that don’t result in a gallbladder attack are sometimes called “silent” gallstones because they present no symptoms at all. These silent stones are actually the most common type of gallstone.
Good And Bad
The good news about silent gallstones is that as long as they don’t lodge in your duct, they don’t require any treatment. The bad news, however, is that even silent stones increase your odds of having future gallstones and also increase your risk of gallbladder cancer.
Rare But Deadly
Gallbladder cancer is relatively rare, with less than 4,000 people diagnosed with it in the United States each year. But it can be worse than other forms of cancer because only 1-in-5 cases of gallbladder cancer are found in the early stages, before the cancer metastasizes.
But if your gallstones aren’t silent, there are 14 symptoms to look for. The first six symptoms you may experience occur when a gallstone attack begins.
Those symptoms are a sudden, intense stabbing, gnawing, or cramping pain in the upper right section of your abdomen, a similar pain in the center of your abdomen under your chest. This is sometimes mistaken for a heart attack.
It Gets Worse…
Pain between the shoulder blades, pain that radiates into your right shoulder, nausea, and vomiting are also symptoms of an attack. If the gallbladder attack continues on without treatment, the symptoms will progress and become even more serious.
Those elevated symptoms can include abdominal pain that can last more than five hours, and is so severe you can’t sit still. Another is jaundice, which is when your skin and the whites of your eyes take on a yellow tinge. You may also experience fever, chills, urine that looks tea-like, and poop that is strangely light in color.
It’s also possible that your gallstones can cause a condition called gallstone pancreatitis, where your gallstones block the movement of digestive enzymes from your pancreas, leading to inflammation.
Sharp And Squeezing
The symptoms of gallstone pancreatitis are similar to regular gallstone symptoms, but can have the additional effects including sharp, squeezing pain in your upper left abdomen or a similar pain in your back.
Call A Doctor
If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, the safe course of action is to seek medical attention immediately. The doctors will likely do a CT scan or ultrasound — various tests to check the state of your bile ducts — blood tests, or they’ll use an endoscope to evaluate your stones. They’re also likely to prescribe an opioid for the pain.
For treatment, they will either try to remove the stone with an endoscope or remove the gallbladder altogether. Like the appendix, it can be entirely removed with little adverse effects. If surgery isn’t an option, there are medications that can dissolve stones, though they take quite a while to work. Of course, seeing a doctor is the best way to how to move forward.