Oh, the Gall (Bladder)!
July 4, 2010 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Is the problem with my gall bladder? (TMI inside)

YANAD. I'm calling my doctor to make an appointment in the morning.

Can you tell me what symptoms you had before you had your gall bladder removed?

About 3 months ago, I had a sudden onset abdominal pain that woke me up. Upper right quadrant. It lasted about 20 minutes, then went away and I didn't feel it again until Friday evening.

Friday, I had two bouts of this same abdominal pain. Each lasted about 1/2 an hour, with about 1/2 an hour in between the two bouts. I'd put the pain at about a 7 or 8 on a 10 point scale. When the pain abated, it did so quickly, like within a minute each time. During the second bout, I had diarrhea twice. I took ibuprofen, pepto bismol and melatonin and went to sleep. Slept just fine.

Saturday, I had low level ache for most of the day. It flared up a little bit (about a 4 on the pain scale) after lunch (ham & cheese sandwich), but the rest of the day I was fine.

This morning when I pooped it was very dark. Again later this afternoon. And I had another pain attack (7-8) that lasted almost an hour and a half this afternoon. I took pepto bismol and tylenol this time, plus chewed two Tums. It didn't touch it. 40 minutes into the attack, I took ibuprofen, and about 40 minutes later I was fine again.

So, what do you think? Has anyone experienced symptoms like these? Is it gall bladder related?
posted by wwartorff to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your symptoms were like mine, yes - they were around a 6-7 on the pain scale at first, lasting around 30 minutes, but got worse each time they occurred. It ended up feeling like a bowling ball was trying to come out from just below my sternum.

My doctor tried to convince me on several consecutive visits that it was just some kind of gastric reflux, had me on Pepcid, etc... - I finally insisted on a CT, and my surgeon later told me it was a textbook case, the whole gallbladder was full of gallstones.

Dark poop - from the Pepto, of course. Never helped my gallbladder symptoms, though I often tried chugging entire bottles before I found out what the real cause was.
posted by HopperFan at 6:57 PM on July 4, 2010

I can't help with the gallbladder, but I can confirm that Pepto Bismol turns things dark.
posted by gjc at 7:05 PM on July 4, 2010

My pain seemed to come from my upper back and it felt like someone had punched me there, even after the flair-up went away it still felt like I had a severe muscle sprain. I just remember it hurt so bad. I think mine was an 9 out of 10. What really helped was going on a low-fat diet until the inflammation went down then I had it removed via laparoscopy. I was out for a week (I could have gone back to work sooner but I had the leave.)
posted by govtdrone at 7:09 PM on July 4, 2010

Sounds similar to when I had gall bladder problems. I finally hit a 9 on the pain scale, went to the hospital and had surgery to have it removed. A simple sonogram should be able to give you a definitive answer, though.
posted by youcancallmeal at 7:09 PM on July 4, 2010

I had a laparoscopic cholecystectomy in April, and the pain I experienced beforehand sounds pretty similar to yours - a deep, severe ache (8-9 on the pain scale) in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen, with pain radiating through my shoulders and back. Always happened at night, sometimes after a fatty meal, but sometimes after nothing but a salad. I would go for months without a sign of it, and then have three gallstone attacks on successive nights. Diarrhea, gas, and some acid reflux usually went along with it as well. Mine always lasted a minimum of 4 hours or so, sometimes up to 10 (both times resulted in emergency visits).

Tylenol, though? Hee. No. Gallstones laugh in the face of OTC remedies. Two Vicodin just barely took the edge off, and the only thing that zapped the pain in less than an hour was a knockout shot of Demerol (I think) that was administered intravenously at the ER.

Get that business checked out - I let mine go for three years and suffered needlessly. Also, don't let your doctor put you off if you don't fit the profile (fat, forty, female). If it is gallstones, the surgery was very doable; I was home the same day and back at work the next week.
posted by timetoevolve at 7:23 PM on July 4, 2010

I felt pain in my back more than my abdomen, but yes, it began as a dull throbbing lasting about a half hour and then subsiding...only to come back in the coming weeks longer and stronger. The pain also occurred more frequently as I stupidly waited to see a doctor.

Having your gallbladder removed is easy surgery (if there is such a thing, I know surgery is never any fun or easy). They slice you in teeny bits now, rather than one giant opening. It's pretty cool - a slice for the camera, and a couple of slices for the tools, and they take out your gallbladder beneath your belly button. You heal much, much faster with smaller incisions. They puff you full of gas to access your core, and that was the most painful part for me -- all that gas trapped in your body cavity needing to make its way out. But even so -- you go home the day after, and can head back to work fairly soon, depending on how active your job is.
posted by missmary6 at 7:26 PM on July 4, 2010

Mine was a 10 ... it felt like being beaten and in flames inside, the way a hamburger would feel after being flipped on grill. I really hadn't had any warning, except perhaps back pain that impeded my sleep.

Get it checked out. My gall bladder was gangrenous, and if I had let it go, per the doctor, I would not be typing this right now.
posted by jgirl at 7:27 PM on July 4, 2010

Syptoms that caused me to seek help:
Severe pain between my ribs (7-8 level pain), nausea, vomiting, fever, dark urine. I went to Urgent Care first, but they couldn't diagnose me - just gave me pain meds thinking I had torn a muscle vomiting. Within 15 minutes of being in the ER later that night, I was admitted and a surgeon was called in.

Before that day I had only one other incident of pain and had no idea it was my gallbladder then either. That was appx 2 weeks earlier.

Once admitted I had an ERCP the following day, then laproscopic gall bladder removal the day after that. My surgeon would only say it was a very bad case, so I was surprised I didn't have any warning symptoms.

Good luck!
posted by prettymightyflighty at 7:29 PM on July 4, 2010

It's in the same area that I had the pain when I had gallstones, but my pain lasted quite a bit longer. It could be that you have smaller stones, a different type of blockage, or are just starting to see symptoms.

The pain almost always came after a day when I had a decent amount of fatty foods. The gallbladder is part of the system that breaks down fat in the body, so one of the things that can help is to go on a very low-fat diet, but get it checked out, because gallbladder pain can be something more serious, depending on what's causing it.

My surgery was laparoscopic and the recovery was fairly easy, especially compared to the pain I was in beforehand.
posted by xingcat at 7:43 PM on July 4, 2010

Yes, I agree that this sounds very much like my wife's gallstones. I'll also second the suggestion that you do not let your doctor laugh it off. That happened several times to my wife (she was "too young" for gallstones) and by the time they did check her gall bladder it was reportedly within minutes of rupturing, and she had to have emergency surgery. Good luck, and get well soon.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:46 PM on July 4, 2010

I should add, to avoid panicking you unnecessarily, her surgery was after about a dozen episodes like you describe, spread over 6 to 8 months.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:48 PM on July 4, 2010

Just wanted to chime in that I had a similar experience with my gallbladder pain, only it went undiagnosed for 6 years. Definitely get it checked out, and make sure they check your gallbladder even if you don't fit the standard profile of people with gallbladder issues.
posted by Zophi at 7:51 PM on July 4, 2010

My gall bladder is still inside me. I had pain just like you describe. It was so bad I wen to the ER. Tests showed that it only works at about 30% where a healthy gall bladder works at closer to 80% (I honestly don't know what that means, that's just what they told me after my test.)

I've noticed that if I limit my soda intake and avoid too much high fructose corn syrup I don't have the pain. I can usually do a can of soda and be fine, but more than that and I'll be hurting.

I'll probably have to have it out eventually, but for now I'm happy to just drink lots of water.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:08 PM on July 4, 2010

Another IANAD chime: I had a couple bouts of pain over a two or three years, and thought it was just vicious gas or something. Due to neck issues, I pretty much assumed the agony in my shoulders was related to that. I saw a doctor who said I had pretty huge gall stone, and should get it taken out. And then I went on with my life, until I had an attack that wouldn't stop. It lasted roughly 36 hours, and by the end, surgery had been scheduled. Don't wait until that attack. If you need to get the gall bladder out, do it, and don't wait for it to get worse, because it most certainly will.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:09 PM on July 4, 2010

I had a gallstone when I was teenager, and your symptoms sound pretty similar to what I remember of mine. Seconding everybody above that the surgery is pretty basic - although in my case the doctor messed up and cut the bile duct and had to put in a stint (plastic tubing) to fix it. Except then other complications arose (stint started leaking)... make sure you get a surgeon that knows what they're doing. After the several months of recovering from a botched surgery, my lack of gallbladder never bothered me.

Still, get it checked out as soon as possible. One of my family members died when a tiny gall stone moved out of his gall bladder and.. shoot, somehow got lodged someplace it wasn't supposed to be.
posted by ajarbaday at 8:10 PM on July 4, 2010

I wrote some of my things, way back in the day. Maybe interesting, maybe not. I had an ultrasound to confirm my gall stone.

posted by lundman at 8:14 PM on July 4, 2010

Nth the ultrasound. Unless your doc finds something else that could be the problem....get the ultrasound. I had a similar kind of pain after eating a high fat meal. Went to the ER and the u-sound showed an inflamed duct going from the gall bladder to the intestines. Good for you on planning to get it checked out. My gallbladder problems were a signal that I had other problems. Now I'm getting those taken care of.
Good luck.
posted by hot_monster at 9:52 PM on July 4, 2010

Mine had most of the same symptoms listed above, plus vomiting; several different doctors treated me for reflux with Prevacid and Nexium for a couple years while I still had those attacks every few months. Nobody ever mentioned gallstones or suggested an ultrasound until I was referred to a specialist (internist??). He immediately suggested gallstones. I had it out and haven't had a bit of "reflux" or "heartburn" since.

Don't let them do that to you. Get the ultrasound to prove that it is or isn't gallstones before you let them send you home with antacids.
posted by CathyG at 10:05 PM on July 4, 2010

I think this sounds like it could be gall bladder stones or "sludge" (what I had).

I had the same experiences as you - pain that woke me up out of a sound sleep, each attack lasting about a half hour to an hour, pain abating quickly, pain about a 7 on a scale of 1-10, pain located in the upper right quadrant, some minor aching in between attacks. I also had nausea.

I was also treated for acid reflux and a UTI before they did an ultra sound and narrowed it down to my gall bladder, after which I had it laparoscopically removed.
posted by batonthefueltank at 12:07 AM on July 5, 2010

Sounds just like the symptoms I had when I needed my gallbladder removed (it's gone now). Painkillers made no difference to my pain - I put this down to the mechanism of the pain, whereby a stone gets stuck somewhere it shouldn't be (causing pain) and then dislodges itself and goes back inside the gallbladder (which relieves the pain). In my case the pain would subside very suddenly and I'd feel on top of the world, but this wasn't related to painkiller intake.

I found the attacks were strongly correlated to eating fatty meals. I was diagnosed 12 years before I eventually had surgery, and for most of the intervening years was attack-free. Initially I am pretty sure this was because I removed nearly all fat from my diet - thereafter I think it was probably luck that kept me symptom-free. After a while my diet returned to normal and I forgot about the stones, until the attacks returned 10+ years later.

I'm only saying all this because you've already said you're going to see the doctor :)
posted by altolinguistic at 3:09 AM on July 5, 2010

If it is gallbladder pain (and I suspect it could well be), get the offending organ removed as soon as you can. Laparoscopic removal is often day surgery, so you could be in and out of hospital in just a few hours. Recovery is relatively quick - bed rest for a couple of days, maybe a week off work watching DVDs, then no heavy lifting for a few weeks.

If there's a wait for surgery - and there might be, because gallbladder pain isn't usually considered to be life-threatening - make sure you get the pain relief you need. For me, it took 30mg codeine (Tylenol #3 in the US, I think) to really dull the pain. Codeine doesn't agree with everyone, but for me it was a big help to know I wouldn't be curled up on the floor groaning for four hours if I accidentally had too much cheese in my sandwich.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:24 AM on July 5, 2010

This is probably redundant at this point, but yes to all that! It took me a long time to get diagnosed, because my pain flares were on the order of once-every-few-months, but when I finally had a diagnosis, the lap-chole fixed it right away with minimal post-surgery pain.

Good luck! Feel better!!
posted by mccxxiii at 6:39 AM on July 5, 2010

Additional anecdote, not intended to freak you out: while lap chole is by all accounts quite easy to recover from, it can go wrong, as mine did, resulting in my needing an old-fashioned full abdominal incision. I had unusual anatomy around the gallbladder, it turned out, which made it difficult for the surgeons to see what they were cutting. It takes a lot longer to heal from full laparotomy (i.e. 10-inch scar) surgery - I was only just back at work after 2 months.

Despite all that, I'm still very glad to be rid of the gallbladder.
posted by altolinguistic at 7:14 AM on July 5, 2010

An add to all the above - might be obvious because everyone here seems to be on board with the surgery - but I did a lot of reading online trying to decide if I should have my gallbladder removed and there is A LOT of anti-surgery info out there. In the end I decided to follow the drs orders and had it removed and it was the best decision I ever made. Cleared up a whole host of minor stomach issues that had been with me since I was a teenager.
posted by double bubble at 7:19 AM on July 5, 2010

I've had stomach issues for quite some time - culminating a few weeks ago when a delicious green curry meal put me in abject AGONY for hours. Two 10mg Ambien tablets couldn't cut through the pain to put me to sleep. Pepto-Bismol didn't help (and it does turn your stools, and your tongue, black. Lovely). So I called my doc, she sent me in for an ultrasound, and lo and behold - gallstones. So I am having surgery scheduled. According to my mom and various other people who have had the surgery, it is a godsend, you won't miss your gallbladder a bit, and you will be able to enjoy your meals again.

(Oh, and per my doc - don't waste your money on "gallbladder cleanse" type stuff or drink gallons of olive oil to "purge" your gallstones. All you'll get is massive diarrhea and a lighter wallet.)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:24 AM on July 5, 2010

Thanks for the feedback, everyone. Yesterday being a holiday, the doc's office is closed today, but I'm making an appointment tomorrow. [that last sentence just seems weird, doesn't it?]

If anyone has tips on what foods to avoid, that would be helpful. Since I became convinced that it's a gall bladder thing I have been avoiding fats. Does anyone know of a fat gram limit that might set off the pain? I read Lundman's blog post (love your borg pic:) and will now avoid eggs and onions as well. Do I have to avoid peanut butter? It's not my favorite thing, but with a toddler in the house, PB&J is a regular lunchtime treat around here!

Also, I have a 7 month old. How long will I have to avoid lifting her, if I have the surgery?
posted by wwartorff at 1:40 PM on July 5, 2010

The pain is usually triggered when the gallbladder is called into action, and that's when you've eaten fatty food. I had my first attack a few hours after a particularly nice curry.

But unfortunately it's not always clear-cut. I went about two years before having surgery, and over that period of time I usually had an attack once or twice a week, but occasionally went without any pain for several months at a time. It's all down to the stones (or sludge) and how they drift around within the gallbladder. The pain occurs when they block the flow of bile, so it's all a bit unpredictable. I just tried to avoid (a) overeating, and (b) foods with a high fat content. Peanut butter in particular was guaranteed to cause an attack, but oddly enough, so were bananas. It seems to vary from person to person. Antacids and other treatments for digestive discomfort are generally futile.

Seconding ignoring any advice about gallbladder cleansing. It's quack science.

My first son was two and a half when I had the surgery. I found I could lift him after a couple of weeks, although I probably should have waited a little longer. Two months after surgery I moved house and did much of the heavy lifting myself.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:55 PM on July 5, 2010

In my younger, more foolish years, I let a friend of mine who was into natural medicine convince me that gall bladder surgery was a very bad thing and that I could be cured with herbs and extracts. This is after I'd had an acute attack in the middle of Nevada on my way from CA to CO. Ultrasound showed that I had gallstones, and I was advised to return home to CA and get the gall bladder out ASAP.

By eating very little food and no fat, the pain eased off for a few days. But, it roared back worse than ever. After three days of not sleeping, eating, or drinking due to intense constant pain, I finally had enough and went to the ER. My gall bladder was so badly infected that I had to have 3 days of IV antibiotics before they could operate. They did the surgery laparoscopically and my recovery was uneventful. When I got back to my regular dr, I was told that an infected gall bladder can rupture just like an infected appendix and that I was damn lucky.

I don't know of anything that will help with gall stones except avoiding fatty meals. That worked for me for several years, but once the attacks became acute, nothing worked except surgery.
posted by elmay at 7:55 PM on July 6, 2010

Well, guess who had surgery last Friday? Went to the doc on Wednesday, finally. They took blood and scheduled me for an ultrasound the next morning. They called back that afternoon and said my labs were off the charts and had me come in for a CT right away. That evening they said everything looked ok (as in, not an emergency), so they'd wait for the ultrasound results. Had labs again in the morning, then the US. They said the labs were still not good, but the US showed the same thing as the CT, so they referred me to a specialist who could see me on Monday.

They said if I experienced certain symptoms or had another painful attack to go to the ER. I went home and ate a bagel with just jelly (2g of fat total), and over the next few hours, with no more food, I slowly escalated into an attack, so I went in. The docs on call admitted me to the hospital, and I was scheduled for surgery the next morning. Surgery went fine (no pathology report yet). I had an ERCP the next morning to remove some remaining stones from the duct, and was home the day after that. Now 5 days post op, I can lift my 7 month old (for short periods, at least) and am feeling much better!

Labs, for those interested, were ALT of 1100 and AST of 600 (the upper normal limits of which are 66 and 46, respectively). Ouch!

Thanks again for all the advice, everyone :)
posted by wwartorff at 6:48 PM on July 13, 2010

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