A doctor explains how gallstones cause pain…

“Biliary colic usually happens when the gallbladder contracts in response to a fatty meal,” says Akram Alashari, MD, abdominal surgeon and critical care physician, Department of Surgery, College of Medicine, University of Florida.

“This compresses the stones, blocking the opening. As the gallbladder relaxes several hours after the meal, the pain subsides. In some people, the pain happens without having eaten anything.”

Pain from Gallstones Is Not a Singular Event

“Once you have a first attack of biliary colic, there is a good chance you will have more symptoms in the future,” continues Dr. Alashari. “Such recurrent symptoms are usually more severe and occasionally associated with complications.

“A complication of gallstones that can be associated with sharp pain rather than dull pain is acute cholecystitis. Acute cholecystitis refers to inflammation of the gallbladder.

“This happens when there is a complete blockage of the gallbladder, caused by a gallstone. Unlike biliary colic, which resolves within a few hours, pain is constant with acute cholecystitis and fever is common.”

More on Gallstone Pain

Gallstones can be the size of a grain of sand to that of a ping pong ball. You may have one or several at the same time.

The pain isn’t always on the upper right abdomen. It can also be in the upper central abdomen.

The pain may also be between your shoulder blades or in your right shoulder.

The duration of the pain may last several minutes to a few hours.

Risk Factors for Developing Gallstones

  • Female
  • Over age 40
  • Overweight
  • Fast weight loss
  • Sedentary
  • Pregnancy
  • Diet high in fats and “bad” cholesterol
  • Diet low in fiber
  • Diabetes
  • Liver disease
  • Hormone replacement therapy or oral birth control pills
  • Native American or Hispanic
  • Family history of gallstones

As you can see, some of these risk factors are modifiable. You should get to work at making the lifestyle changes that will lower your risk of getting a gallstone for the first time or for a repeat time.