Harvard Women's Health Watch

Ask the doctor: Do I need gallbladder surgery?

Q. I've been having abdominal pain that may be due to gallstones. Is surgery the best solution, or are there other things I can try first?

A. The first thing to determine is whether your abdominal pain is in fact due to gallstones. They typically cause pain on the upper right side or in the center of the abdomen just below the breastbone that radiates to the back or right shoulder. The pain is often brought on by eating—especially fatty foods—or may occur at night. Sometimes gallstone pain is accompanied by sweating, bloating, nausea, or vomiting.

When gallstones are present, the gallbladder's contractions can force one into the neck of the gland at the opening to the cystic duct—the tube that carries bile from the gallbladder to the common bile duct. As the gallbladder relaxes, the stones often fall back from the opening, and the pain slowly subsides. The pain may be mild or it may be intense. It usually lasts 30 to 60 minutes.

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