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What Does Your Gallbladder Do?

This small, pear-shaped pouch is tucked right under your liver. It stores a fluid called bile your liver makes. Bile breaks down fat. When you eat, your gallbladder sends bile through ducts to your small intestine to help you digest food.

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What Are Gallbladder Attacks?

When bile can’t get into or out of your gallbladder, it causes the symptoms that make up an attack. Too much bile in your gallbladder irritates it and causes inflammation and pain.

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Common Symptom: Pain

A gallbladder attack usually causes a sudden gnawing pain that gets worse. You may feel it in the upper right or center of your belly, in your back between your shoulder blades, or in your right shoulder. You might also vomit or have nausea. Pain usually lasts 20 minutes to an hour.

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Other Symptoms

Backed-up bile can enter your bloodstream and cause your skin and the whites of your eyes to turn yellow. Doctors call this jaundice. You could have a fever or chills, and your urine might turn the color of tea. Your poop also may be light-colored.

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Common Cause: Gallstones

Too much cholesterol or bilirubin in your bile can make crystals form. They clump together and make stones. These could be as small as a grain of sand or as big as a golf ball. They aren’t a problem unless they get stuck in your bile ducts and block bile from leaving. This is the most common cause of gallbladder attacks.

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Other Causes

Any other kind of condition that keeps your gallbladder from working the way it should can cause an attack. These include cholecystitis (swelling and redness in the gallbladder), tumors, abscesses, sclerosing cholangitis (scarring of your bile ducts or gallbladder), abnormal tissue growth, or chronic acalculous gallbladder disease, which keeps your gallbladder from moving the way it needs to in order to empty.

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Your Sex Makes Them More Likely

Women aged 20 to 60 have a higher chance of getting gallstones than men do. Extra estrogen in your body from pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy, or birth control pills may be why. After 60, though, men and women are at equal risk.

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Weight and Diet Play a Role

If you eat foods high in calories and refined carbohydrates and don’t get much fiber, you raise your risk of a gallbladder attack. You’re also more likely to get them if you’re obese. Quick weight loss can bring them on, too. For example, your risk goes up after weight loss surgery.

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Age, Race, and Genes Raise Your Risk

As you get older, you’re more likely to have both gallstones and a gallbladder attack. Once you hit 40, your risk starts to rise. If someone in your family had gallstones, you’re more likely to get them. Native Americans and Mexican Americans tend to get gallstones more often than other races do.

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Other Conditions That Boost the Odds

Certain conditions can cause gallstones and raise your risk of a gallbladder attack, such as cirrhosis (a disease in which your liver stops working because of disease or injury), infection, sickle cell anemia, intestinal diseases like Crohn’s disease that keep you from getting certain nutrients, metabolic syndrome, high triglycerides, low LDL cholesterol levels, and diabetes.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 12/04/2019 Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo on December 04, 2019


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Cleveland Clinic: “Could Your Abdominal Pain Actually Be Gallstones?”

Mayo Clinic: “Gallstones.”

Harvard Medical School: “Attack of the gallstones.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Gallstones.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Gallbladder Disease."

Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo on December 04, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.