The gallbladder is a small sac-like organ that lies just beneath the liver. It stores digestive enzymes, including bile, that are needed to break down foods, particularly fatty foods. These digestive enzymes often contain cholesterol or similar small particles, which may crystallize in the gallbladder, creating gallstones. Gallstones may range in size from about the size of a grain of sand to roughly golf ball sized. These stones usually do not cause problems and are typically asymptomatic, unless a stone blocks a bile duct. When a bile duct is blocked, bile is unable to pass from the gallbladder to the small intestine, where it is needed to break down foods. A patient experiencing a blocked bile duct will need treatment, which is often in the form of surgical removal of the gallbladder.
Patients who do have symptoms of gallstones may experience mild pain in the center of the abdomen or “pit of the stomach” or pain in the upper right of the abdomen. This pain may radiate to the upper right portion of the back or to the right shoulder blade. Severity of the pain may fluctuate, possibly even disappearing for some time. Some patients may have intensified pain after eating, particularly if the meal is high in fat content. If a patient experiences a blocked bile duct, symptoms are much more likely to occur. Patients with blocked bile ducts may also develop fever or chills, as well as a yellowing of the skin and/or whites of the eyes. A blocked bile duct requires medical treatment, so patients with these symptoms should promptly seek medical attention.
Symptoms of gallstones are similar to a number of other conditions, including heart attacks. If you have unexpected chest pain, it is always best to err on the side of caution and seek medical attention.