About 90% of gallstones cause no symptoms. There is a very small (2%) chance of developing pain during the first 10 years after gallstones form. After 10 years, the chance for developing symptoms declines. On average, symptoms take about 8 years to develop. The reason for the decline in symptoms after 10 years is not known, although some doctors suggest that "younger," smaller stones may be more likely to cause symptoms than larger, older ones. Acalculous gallbladder disease will often cause symptoms similar to those of gallbladder stones.
Biliary Pain or Colic
The mildest and most common symptom of gallbladder disease is intermittent pain called biliary colic, which occurs either in the mid- or the right portion of the upper abdomen. Symptoms may be fairly nonspecific. A typical attack has several features:
- The primary symptom is typically a steady gripping or gnawing pain in the upper right abdomen near the rib cage, which can be severe and can radiate to the upper back. Some patients with biliary colic experience the pain behind the breast bone.
- Nausea or vomiting may occur.
- Changing position, taking over-the-counter pain relievers, and passing gas do not relieve the symptoms.
- Biliary colic typically disappears after 1 to several hours. If it persists beyond this point, acute cholecystitis or more serious conditions may be present.
- The episodes typically occur at the same time of day, but less frequently than once a week. Large or fatty meals can trigger the pain, but it usually occurs several hours after eating and often awakens the patient during the night.
- The condition commonly returns, but attacks can be years apart.
Digestive complaints such as belching, feeling unusually full after meals, bloating, heartburn (burning feeling behind the breast bone), or regurgitation (acid back-up in the food pipe) are not likely to be caused by gallbladder disease. Conditions that may cause these symptoms include peptic ulcer, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or indigestion of unknown cause. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #19 Peptic ulcers and In-Depth Report #85 Gastroesophageal reflux disease.]
Symptoms of Gallbladder Inflammation (Acute Calculous and Acalculous Cholecystitis)
Between 1 and 3% of people with symptomatic gallstones develop inflammation in the gallbladder (acute cholecystitis), which occurs when stones or sludge block the duct. The symptoms are similar to those of biliary colic but are more persistent and severe. They include the following:
- Pain in the upper right abdomen that is severe and constant, and may last for days. Pain frequently increases when drawing a breath.
- Pain may also radiate to the back or occur under the shoulder blades, behind the breast bone, or on the left side.
- About a third of patients have fever and chills, which do not occur with uncomplicated biliary colic.
- Nausea and vomiting may occur.
Review Date: 06/10/2010
Reviewed By: Reviewed by: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.