Surprising Signs That Indicate You Have Gallbladder Issues

Pain Under the Right Shoulder Blade Most people associate gallbladder problems with abdominal pain. But it turns out that back or shoulder pain can be a… Aisha Abdullah - April 5, 2023

The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ tucked under the liver. It stores bile, a fluid produced by the liver and released into the intestines to break down fat in food. Although it plays an important role in digestion, the gallbladder isn’t a vital organ and doesn’t typically cause any problems. But when things do go wrong, gallbladder issues can cause debilitating pain and life-threatening complications. The earlier you catch potential gallbladder problems, the more likely you are to make a full recovery. These are 20 common (and not so common) signs of gallbladder problems.


Your Gallbladder Is Small but Can Cause Big Health Problems

Bile produced in the liver travels through ducts to the small intestine, where it aids in digestion. Specifically, bile helps the intestines absorb nutrients that are fat-soluble. Those are nutrients found in high-fat foods like avocado and nuts and stored in fat tissue in the body. The gallbladder is a storage pouch for bile and helps deliver it to the intestines. The most common gallbladder disease is gallstones, which occur when substances like cholesterol, salts, and calcium build up and harden into small deposits, or stones, inside the organ. Gallstones can cause inflammation or swelling of the bladder, also called cholecystitis. If gallstones grow large enough or move into the bile ducts, they can cause blockage, leading to serious duct infections called cholangitis. Growths on the gallbladder may be benign polyps or, more rarely, gallbladder cancer. Another extremely rare condition called porcelain gallbladder is caused by the accumulation of calcium on the wall of the gallbladder. This condition dramatically increases your risk of cancer and usually requires surgery to remove the gallbladder.

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How to Know if You’re At Risk For Gallbladder Issues

Around 3 percent of the population will experience gallbladder problems in their lifetime, but most don’t have any symptoms. Women are at a far higher risk than men, especially as they age. Pregnancy, hormonal birth control, and menopause treatments increase women’s risk of gallstones. However, men aren’t immune to gallstones. Men over the age of 60 are at higher risk of gallstone issues than younger men. Native Americans of certain tribes and Hispanic people are more likely to have gallstone disease than White, Black, or Asian people. A family history of gallbladder issues increases your likelihood of developing gallbladder diseases, as does a diabetes diagnosis. High levels of triglycerides (fat in the blood) and low levels of HDL “good” cholesterol are other common risk factors for gallstones. Certain medications, including those to lower cholesterol and pre-existing conditions like anemia and Crohn’s disease, can also increase your risk of gallbladder disease.


Rapid Weight Loss and Weight Cycling Raise Your Risk

It’s important to be aware that diet and weight play a very important role in gallbladder health. Higher weight is associated with an increased risk of gallstones and other gallbladder issues, possibly due to the link between high cholesterol and obesity. On the flip side, dieting, rapid weight loss, and weight fluctuations are some of the biggest risk factors for developing gallbladder conditions. Very low-calorie diets, including cleanses and detoxes, are particularly damaging to the gallbladder. These diets are thought to disrupt the natural balance of salts and cholesterol in the organ, leading to the development of gallstones. People who lose large amounts of weight over a relatively short period through diet, medication, or surgery are also at a much higher risk of developing gallstones. As many as 10 percent of people who undergo weight loss surgery have their gallbladder removed because of gallstones. If you are trying to lose weight, avoid very low-calorie diets and focus on gradual, rather than rapid, weight loss with a doctor’s supervision to help you reduce your risk of gallbladder issues.

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Pain On The Right Side of the Abdomen

The most common sign that something is wrong with your gallbladder is a pain in the middle and upper right part of the abdomen. This pain, called biliary colic, usually lasts several hours and doesn’t go away after changing positions or taking over-the-counter pain medicine. Most people who experience gallbladder pain describe it as a sudden, sharp pain that radiates out from the upper right section of the abdomen. Biliary colic can vary in severity and may get worse when you take deep breaths or after eating. It may also be accompanied by tenderness around the site of the pain. Many conditions can cause gallbladder pain. The most common cause is gallstones that block the flow of bile out of the gallbladder, causing the organ to contract or spasm. Gallstones can also get stuck in the bile ducts or cause damage to the gallbladder wall. Non-gallstone causes of gallbladder pain include infections, liver diseases that affect bile production, and cancer of the gallbladder or bile ducts.

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Yellow, Jaundiced Skin and Eyes

Jaundice is the most well-known and noticeable symptom of gallbladder issues. The condition causes the skin and whites of the eyes to turn a pale yellowish color. Jaundice is caused by the accumulation of bilirubin, a yellow substance found in bile produced when the body disposes of dead red blood cells. The liver typically breaks down and removes bilirubin from the body as waste. But certain gallbladder, liver, and pancreas diseases prevent bilirubin from being excreted, causing a toxic buildup of the substance in the bloodstream. In addition, gallstones and certain gallbladder growths and infections can cause jaundice by blocking the flow of bile. Jaundice can be a symptom of other minor and more severe health conditions, including anemia and hepatitis. When experienced along with pain or tenderness in the upper right section of the abdomen, jaundice is usually a sign of gallbladder issues.

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Dark Pee or Clay-Colored Poop

The buildup of bilirubin in the body caused by blocked bile ducts doesn’t just discolor the skin and eyes. It also causes unusually colored waste well. A characteristic sign of gallbladder issues is pale, clay-colored poop. This is because the salts in bile turn poop brown. If bile is backed up in the gallbladder or bile ducts, these salts never reach the intestines, and poop ends up being light-colored. Gallbladder problems can also result in poop that is fatty and particularly smelly because of a lack of bile, making it into the intestines to break up fat in food. People with unhealthy gallbladders may also have dark urine that is dark brown or orange due to a buildup of bilirubin in the body. Along with abdominal pain and jaundice, changes in the color of waste are the primary symptoms of gallstones and other gallbladder diseases. Dark urine is also caused by dehydration, liver issues, or infections, so without the other symptoms may not be a sign of gallbladder disease.


Chronic diarrhea

Gallbladder problems often appear as bowel issues, specifically changing the color, consistency, and frequency of bowel movements. Bile is important for the proper digestion of food and absorption of nutrients in the intestines. Since waste from digested food is excreted from the body as poop, it’s not surprising that anything that affects bile will also affect poop. Many people with bad gallbladders experience chronic diarrhea, having to go to the bathroom up to 10 times a day for months at a time. Their poop is often chalky or extremely pale in color from a lack of bile. Gallstones cause inflammation and scarring of the gallbladder that gets worse after you eat. For that reason, people with gallstones and other chronic gallbladder issues may notice that diarrhea is more common after eating. This may cause people with gallbladder problems to avoid food in order to avoid this symptom.


Sudden Fever or Chills

Chronic gallbladder disease can cause many uncomfortable symptoms, including pain and jaundice. Some people with gallbladder issues also report having a fever or chills. Fevers are associated with a gallbladder infection, which can be serious or even life-threatening. When gallstones block the bile duct and cause bile to build up, this can lead to swelling of the gallbladder. In addition to causing pain and other symptoms, gallbladder inflammation makes you more susceptible to infections. If you’re experiencing characteristic signs of gallbladder issues such as abdominal pain, jaundice, or discolored waste, a sudden fever or chills is a sign of a serious gallbladder infection that requires immediate medical attention. Even a low fever may be a sign of a growing infection. Left untreated, gallbladder infection can spread to other tissue and cause serious complications, like perforation or splitting of gallbladder tissue.


Nausea and Vomiting

The gallbladder’s important role in digestion means that when it isn’t working properly, it can cause serious problems with your ability to keep food down. Gallbladder disease causes inflammation, lack of blood flow, and damage to gallbladder tissue. It blocks digestive fluids from moving through the digestive system properly. So, it’s no surprise that people with gallbladder conditions may be more prone to nausea and vomiting. These symptoms are especially common after eating a large or fat-heavy meal. Gallbladder issues cause vomiting and nausea in a couple of ways. First, gallbladder diseases can cause severe abdominal pain and discomfort, which can cause or worsen nausea. Additionally, the interruption of bile flow prevents your body from properly digesting food and can cause you to experience an upset stomach. Sometimes, people mistake digestive issues related to gallbladder disease for less serious problems like food poisoning.


Bloating and Gassiness

Other common complaints of chronic gallbladder disease that are often mistaken for simple digestive issues are bloating, abdominal discomfort, and gassiness. A dysfunctional gallbladder slows down the digestive process, making you feel full for much longer than you normally would. Even if you haven’t eaten or have only eaten a small amount, you may still feel stuffed. The abdominal pain caused by gallbladder issues usually results from swelling, inflammation, and increased rigidity of the organ. That can make you feel bloated or just generally uncomfortable. Bloating may occur because you Some people with gallbladder disease also report being gassy. This may be due to your body trying to release some of the pressure in your abdomen by burping or farting. If these symptoms don’t go away over time or worsen when you eat, it might be worth ruling out gallbladder issues.

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Acid Reflux and Heartburn

Some of the lesser-known signs of gallbladder disease are those that resemble indigestion and upset stomach. Heartburn and acid reflux are not as common as abdominal pain and some other symptoms of gallbladder issues. Heartburn is caused by stomach acid rising into the esophagus, resulting in a burning sensation in your chest. Millions of people experience heartburn each day, and most of the time, it’s just a sign that they’ve eaten too much spicy or acidic food. Sometimes, though, heartburn can be an indication of a more serious issue, like gallbladder disease. If you are experiencing heartburn for the first time or have a sudden increase in heartburn symptoms, that could be related to gallbladder disease. This is especially true if you notice these symptoms alongside other potential gallbladder issues.


Loss of Appetite or Weight Loss

Gallbladder issues can result from significant weight loss. Ironically, gallbladder issues can also cause significant weight loss. Several symptoms of gallbladder disease, including chronic diarrhea and vomiting, can directly cause weight loss. Other symptoms, such as nausea, bloating, heartburn, and indigestion, make people more likely to avoid food altogether. And the fact that these symptoms are frequently triggered or worsened by eating makes matters worse. Many people with gallbladder disease report loss of appetite, especially as other symptoms worsen. The perpetual feeling of fullness makes people with gallbladder problems even less inclined to eat and more likely to lose weight. Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss combined with other gallbladder symptoms may be a sign that you need to talk to your doctor about potential gallbladder disease.

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Vitamin Deficiency

The primary role of bile is to break down fat. Without it, your body is unable to process the fat in food. Although people sometimes equate fat with bad, fat is absolutely necessary to keep us alive. And, in fact, many vital nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E, and K, are fat-soluble. That means that they are absorbed along with the fat in food and are stored in fatty tissue in the body. Vitamin A is important for healthy bones and skin. Vitamin D is necessary to absorb calcium and is vital for bone health, while vitamins E and K promote healthy blood. Deficiencies of these fat-soluble vitamins aren’t just potential signs of gallbladder issues. They’re also serious health conditions in their own right. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness and makes you more vulnerable to infections. Lack of vitamin D causes muscle pain and bone loss. Vitamin E deficiency can cause nerve damage, while too little vitamin K leads to increased bruising and bleeding. If you don’t have enough bile, you won’t be able to absorb these nutrients properly.


Pain Under the Right Shoulder Blade

Most people associate gallbladder problems with abdominal pain. But it turns out that back or shoulder pain can be a hidden sign that you need to get your gallbladder checked. That’s because the swollen, inflamed gallbladder can press against the phrenic nerve, which extends from your abdomen to the neck. This nerve is important for controlling the movements of your chest muscles to allow you to breathe. So what does that have to do with back pain? Sometimes, when nerves are irritated, they can cause what’s called “referred pain.” Basically, you experience pain in one place on your body but feel it somewhere else. A classic example of this is that during a heart attack, people often feel pain in their left shoulder or arm. In the case of gallbladder issues, the pressure on the phrenic nerve is felt in the right shoulder blade or the right side of your back. As with abdominal pain, gallbladder-related back or shoulder pain usually worsens after eating.

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Bad Breath

Many things can cause bad breath: a garlic-heavy meal, smoking, or slacking on your dental health routine. But if you have persistent bad breath with no obvious cause, it could be a sign of something more serious. When your gallbladder isn’t functioning normally or if gallstones are causing bile duct blockage, you may experience extremely foul-smelling that doesn’t improve with time or changing habits. Bad breath related to gallbladder issues is usually described as smelling like sulfur or rotten eggs. In addition to the odor, you may also have a sour taste in your mouth that you can’t get rid of. The bad breath may be accompanied by a yellow-colored tongue. Generally, tongues covered in a light yellow film are harmless, but they can be indicative of gallbladder or liver issues caused by an accumulation of bile.

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Extremely Itchy Skin

Your skin is probably not the first play you’d look for signs of gallbladder issues. But a surprisingly common symptom of gallbladder issues is intense, uncontrollable itching. Although the exact cause of gallbladder-related itching is unknown, it’s likely to be at least partially due to a buildup of bile salts in the body. The itching associated with gallbladder disease is much more severe than what you experience with a bug bite. In many cases, the itching is so debilitating that it may require medication to get through the day. A majority of patients with gallstone-related jaundice reported severe, persistent itching. Gallstone blockage of the bile ducts has been associated with itchiness in the palms of the hand and the soles of the feet. Heat may make the itching worse, and some people report that the symptom is worse at night.


Dizziness and Lightheadedness

Feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness are less common but real symptoms of serious gallbladder problems. People with severe gallbladder infections are most at risk for these symptoms. If the infection spreads from the gallbladder into the bloodstream, it can cause you to go into shock and become dizzy and disoriented. This is a serious, life-threatening condition that requires urgent medical attention. Although dizziness and lightheadedness aren’t common symptoms, they can also occur in people with other gallbladder diseases. For example, severe abdominal pain and nausea related to gallstones may cause temporary dizziness and fatigue. Nutritional deficiencies caused by a lack of bile and an inability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins can also cause these symptoms.

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Gallbladder Attacks Can Mimic Heart Attacks

A sudden gallbladder attack that causes severe upper abdominal pain may convince you that you have a heart attack. Both conditions cause sudden intense pain in the lower chest that may extend to the shoulder. Gallbladder attacks can also cause pressure in the center of the chest. Other symptoms that may occur during a heart or gallbladder attack are nausea, vomiting, severe heartburn, and dizziness. Although the symptoms are similar, gallbladder attacks are felt on the right side of the body, while heart attacks are felt on the left. Serious gallbladder issues can also cause a drop in blood pressure and elevated heartbeat. In addition to causing dizziness, gallbladder infections that spread into the blood can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure, which leads to heart palpitations and rapid breathing.

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When To See a Doctor

Many signs of gallbladder disease can mimic other health conditions. Individually, symptoms like abdominal pain, a low-grade fever, occasional lightheadedness, or changes in bowel movements aren’t a cause for concern. But if you’re experiencing combinations of more than one of these and other symptoms listed above, it might be a good idea to see a doctor to determine if you have gallbladder disease. For example, if you experience the following symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention:

  • Abdominal pain that lasts longer than a few hours, especially if the pain is severe or radiates from the upper right side of the abdomen.
  • Yellow skin or whites of the eyes
  • Pale, chalky poop or dark-colored urine
  • Nausea, vomiting, or an inability to keep food down, if accompanied by the symptoms above
  • Fever, chills, or sudden dizziness, if accompanied by the symptoms above

Diet Can Help Prevent Gallbladder Problems

Your diet can help you reduce your risk of developing gallbladder issues. A gallbladder-healthy diet is low in saturated fats that may trigger gallbladder attacks but includes healthy unsaturated fats. The diet is high in fiber, vitamin C, and calcium and low in sugar. Some specific elements of the gallbladder diet are:

  • Avoiding saturated fats, including those found in meat, cheese, and other animal products
  • Including monounsaturated fats found in most nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, and some plant oils
  • Incorporating polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fats, found in fatty fish, walnuts, and flaxseed
  • Eating fiber-rich foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, may help promote gallbladder health.
  • Reducing added sugar and processed foods, which are associated with a higher risk of developing gallstones.
  • Drinking coffee every day has been linked to a decreased risk of gallstones.


Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Gallbladder Disease: Signs, Symptoms, and Complications

14 Gallbladder Attack Symptoms to Look Out For

Symptoms of a Gallbladder Problem

Gallbladder: Pain, Symptoms, Problems, and More

Gallstones and gallbladder disease Information

14 Signs and Symptoms You May Have a Gallbladder Problem

7 Gallstone Symptoms You Need to Know About

Symptoms You May Not Realize Are Being Caused by Gallbladder Disease

What Are the Symptoms of a Gallbladder Attack