When IBS and Gallbladder Problems Happen at the Same Time

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be associated with gallstones. Although IBS is primarily a disorder of the large intestine, you can also experience other problems affecting your digestive system when you have IBS.

Woman with stomach pain
Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Overview

Your gallbladder is a small, sac-like organ located on the right side of your upper abdomen, tucked under your liver. The gallbladder's main job is to store bile, a substance that helps digest the foods we eat. Bile is produced by the liver and then stored in the gallbladder. When we eat foods that have fat in them, the gallbladder secretes bile into the small intestine where the bile breaks down fat, allowing it to be absorbed into our bloodstream.

Symptoms

Although some gallbladder problems, including gallstones, may develop without any noticeable signs, the following symptoms may be indicative of gallbladder disease:

  • Bloating after meals, particular meals with a high-fat content
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea after meals
  • Pain in the middle or right side of your abdomen

You might experience biliary colic, also described as a gallbladder attack. Such an attack may occur within a few hours of eating a large or fatty meal. You may experience pain in your upper right abdomen, and this pain may radiate to the upper back, between your shoulder blades, under your right shoulder, or behind your breastbone. Some gallbladder attacks result in nausea and vomiting. Usually, these attacks only last for an hour or so. Such an attack should be reported to your doctor, even if symptoms subside.

If you experience the following symptoms, seek immediate medical attention:

  • Clay-colored stools
  • Fever and chills alongside nausea and vomiting
  • Signs of jaundice
  • Severe and persistent pain in your upper right abdomen

Diagnostic Tests

When you get medical attention for your digestive symptoms, your doctor will do a physical examination and recommend blood tests.

Further testing may include:

  • An ultrasound that can identify the location and size of gallstones
  • A computerized tomography (CT) scan that may indicate the presence of gallstones, as well as show any inflammation or injury to the gallbladder and the bile ducts
  • A cholescintigraphy (HIDA scan) that involves the injection of a radioactive substance to help evaluate how your gallbladder is functioning and to assess for the presence of gallbladder infection or blockage in the bile ducts
  • An endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), which is an interventional procedure used to identify and remove stones from the bile duct

Treatments

The most common treatment for gallbladder problems is cholecystectomy, which is surgical removal of the gallbladder. The procedure is most often done laparoscopically, with very small incisions.

IBS and Gallbladder Problems

Unlike some other health problems, there does not seem to be any evidence that people who have IBS are more likely to suffer from gallbladder disease than those who don't have IBS.

One interesting avenue of research explores whether impaired gallbladder motility may contribute to IBS symptoms. Studies on the subject are few and have yielded very mixed results. For example, one study found no difference in rates of gallbladder contractions between IBS patients and healthy control subjects.

Another study found higher rates than would be expected in patients who suffer from constipation-predominant IBS (IBS-C) and lower rates than would be expected in those who suffer from diarrhea-predominant IBS (IBS-D). An additional study found no difference between IBS patients and healthy controls in terms of gallbladder contraction rates two hours after eating but found a significant difference three hours after eating.

At present, the clinical research about the interrelationship between IBS and gallbladder problems remains inconclusive.

Is It IBS or Gallbladder?

Because IBS is a functional disorder, many people with IBS lack full confidence in their diagnosis, ad wonder whether other digestive disorders may be present. Because some people with IBS experience nausea and because abdominal pain can radiate, it's reasonable to wonder whether you may also have gallbladder problems.

The best place to address your concerns is by having a conversation with your doctor, who can explore your symptoms and order appropriate diagnostic tests.

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Article Sources
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  1. Gallstones. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC).

  2. Njeze GE. Gallstones. Niger J Surg. 2013;19(2):49-55. doi:10.4103/1117-6806.119236

  3. Guclu, M., et.al. Ultrasonographic evaluation of gallbladder functions in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology 2006 21:1309-1312. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1746.2006.04136.x

  4. Lee, O. Asian motility studies in irritable bowel syndrome. Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility 210 16:120-130. doi:10.5056/jnm.2010.16.2.120

Additional Reading
  • "Gallstones and gallbladder disease - Symptoms" University of Maryland Medical Center.

  • Misra, S., et.al. Gallbladder Dynamics in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Essential Dyspepsia. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology 1991 13:65-68. doi:10.1097/00004836-199102000-00014

  • Njeze GE. Gallstones. Niger J Surg. 2013;19(2):49-55. doi:10.4103/1117-6806.119236

  • Sood, G., et.al. "Abnormal Gallbladder Function in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome." American Journal of Gastroenterology 1993 88:1387-1390.