Understanding Gallstones and Gallbladder Disease

Over 20 million Americans have gallbladder disease and about one million new cases of gallbladder disease are diagnosed annually. The symptoms of gallbladder disease can mimic those of other conditions, including heart attack, making an accurate diagnosis extremely important. If you have been diagnosed with gallbladder disease or gallstones, or if you are wondering whether you may have them, here's what you should know.


What Are Gallstones?

Gallbladder disease is typically characterized by the presence of gallstones, which form bile stored in the gallbladder hardens. Bile is a liquid that helps the body digest fats. When gallstones form, they can block the normal flow of bile from the liver to the small intestine. Undiagnosed gallstones can cause serious problems if they become trapped in the bile duct.

Gallstones cause more than 800,000 hospitalizations every year in the United States. Gallstone attacks frequently occur after eating meals high in fat content.


The symptoms of gallstones include:

  • Steady, severe pain in the upper abdomen that increases rapidly and lasts from 30 minutes to several hours
  • Pain in the back between the shoulder blades
  • Pain under the right shoulder
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Recurring intolerance of fatty foods
  • Colic
  • Belching
  • Gas
  • Indigestion

Many of these symptoms occur because your body has trouble digesting fats without the help of bile. If the bile has formed gallstones and gallstones become trapped in the bile ducts, symptoms that mimic indigestion may occur. The pain that occurs in the arm area may also mimic that of a heart attack.

Acalculous Gallbladder Disease

Gallbladder disease can also happen without the presence of gallstones. In acalculous gallbladder disease, people have symptoms of gallstones, but without there actually being stones in the gallbladder or biliary tract. Acute acalculous gallbladder disease is caused by inflammation in the gallbladder and usually occurs in people who are very ill with other disorders. Chronic acalculous gallbladder disease, which is also known as biliary dyskinesia, is caused by muscle defects or other problems in the gallbladder that inhibit its natural contractions.


The most common treatment for gallbladder disease is laparoscopic surgery, a minimally invasive surgery that can remove the gallbladder. An endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography is the procedure used to remove gallstones in the bile or cystic ducts. There are also a few other alternative treatments for gallbladder disease, including contact solvent dissolution and mechanical extraction.

Seek medical help right away if you are experiencing any of the symptoms of gallbladder disease. As mentioned, the symptoms can mimic a heart attack. However, do not assume you are not having a heart attack. Your healthcare provider can give you an accurate diagnosis and rule out heart issues.

Gallstones Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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5 Sources
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  1. Jones MW, Ferguson T. Chronic Cholecystitis. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-.

  2. Stinton LM, Shaffer EA. Epidemiology of gallbladder disease: cholelithiasis and cancer. Gut Liver. 2012;6(2):172-87. doi:10.5009/gnl.2012.6.2.172

  3. Lamberts MP. Indications of cholecystectomy in gallstone disease. Curr Opin Gastroenterol. 2018;34(2):97-102. doi:10.1097/MOG.0000000000000419

  4. Jones MW, Ferguson T. Acalculous Cholecystitis. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-.

  5. Abraham S, Rivero HG, Erlikh IV, Griffith LF, Kondamudi VK. Surgical and nonsurgical management of gallstones. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89(10):795-802.

Additional Reading
  • University of Maryland Medical Center. (2012, August 26). Gallstones and gallbladder disease.

By Tracee Cornforth
Tracee Cornforth is a freelance writer who covers menstruation, menstrual disorders, and other women's health issues.