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How many days can gallbladder pain last?

Gallbladder pain, also known as biliary colic, can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days depending on the underlying cause. In most cases, a gallbladder attack will resolve within 24 hours with appropriate treatment. However, in some situations, the pain can persist for longer periods due to complications or severe gallbladder disease.

What is gallbladder pain?

Gallbladder pain, referred to medically as biliary colic, occurs when there is a blockage of the cystic duct or common bile duct that prevents bile from reaching the small intestine. This typically occurs due to gallstones getting stuck in the ducts. The blockage leads to increased pressure in the gallbladder and irritation of the gallbladder wall, which causes the characteristic pain.

Gallbladder pain classically presents as:

  • Sudden pain in the upper right or middle abdomen that can radiate to the right shoulder blade or back
  • Starts soon after eating a fatty meal
  • Lasts from 30 minutes to several hours
  • May be associated with nausea and vomiting

The pain often occurs in episodes, being severe for a period before resolving temporarily. Attacks can occur randomly or be triggered by foods high in fat.

What causes gallbladder pain?

The most common causes of gallbladder pain are:

  • Gallstones – Hardened deposits of digestive fluid that can block the cystic duct. Most common cause.
  • Biliary dyskinesia – Impaired gallbladder contractions that cause bile accumulation and inflammation.
  • Gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis) – Swelling of the gallbladder, often due to gallstones.
  • Pancreatitis – Inflammation of the pancreas near the gallbladder.
  • Bile duct obstruction – Blockage of the common bile duct by gallstones, tumors, scarring.

How long does gallbladder pain last with gallstones?

In uncomplicated cases of biliary colic caused by gallstones, the pain typically lasts from 1 to 5 hours. Gallstones passing through the cystic duct and common bile duct cause intermittent obstruction that leads to the colicky pain. Once the stone passes into the small intestine, the obstruction and pain resolve.

Without treatment, gallstone attacks can continue to occur periodically ranging from days to weeks between episodes. The average duration between attacks is about 8 months for those with symptomatic gallstones.

Severe gallstone attacks

In more severe cases, a gallstone may become permanently lodged in the duct and not pass on its own. This can causes several days of constant severe pain as the gallbladder remains obstructed. Emergency endoscopic or surgical treatment is often required to remove the lodged stone.

Associated complications

Gallstone attacks that persist for more than 24 hours increase the risk of complications such as:

  • Cholecystitis – Gallbladder infection that causes inflammation. This can lead to days to weeks of continuous pain.
  • Gallstone pancreatitis – Gallstones passing through and obstructing the pancreatic duct, resulting in pancreas inflammation.
  • Jaundice – Gallstones lodged in the common bile duct can block the drainage of bile, leading to jaundice which causes prolonged pain.

These complications often require hospitalization and surgical or endoscopic procedures to treat, extending the duration of pain.

How long does gallbladder pain last with cholecystitis?

Cholecystitis refers to inflammation of the gallbladder wall, typically due to a gallstone obstructing the cystic duct. It leads to bile and pus accumulation in the gallbladder.

In acute cholecystitis, the constant gallbladder inflammation results in persistent pain and tenderness that lasts days to weeks if left untreated. Pain can fluctuate in intensity but never fully resolves while cholecystitis continues.

The average duration of pain in hospitalized patients with cholecystitis is:

  • Mild (Grade I): 5 days
  • Moderate (Grade II): 7 days
  • Severe (Grade III): 14 days

With intravenous antibiotics and supportive treatment, most cases of acute cholecystitis start to improve within 72 hours. However, severe or complicated cholecystitis often requires urgent gallbladder removal surgery to definitively resolve the infection.

How long does biliary colic last with biliary dyskinesia?

Biliary dyskinesia refers to impaired contraction of the gallbladder that leads to abnormal buildup and release of bile. It is a common cause of biliary colic in the absence of gallstones.

In biliary dyskinesia, the episodes of severe gallbladder pain are typically shorter, lasting 30 minutes to a few hours. However, the frequency of attacks is often higher than gallstone disease. Patients can experience near constant abdominal pain with frequent colicky flare ups.

The overall duration of symptomatic periods ranges from days to months depending on severity. Symptoms eventually subside once the excess bile clears, only to later return. Definitive treatment with gallbladder removal is often pursued for persistent biliary dyskinesia.

When to seek emergency treatment

You should seek prompt medical attention if you experience any of the following:

  • Fever above 100.4°F (38°C)
  • Jaundice (yellowing skin)
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Inability to tolerate liquids or food
  • Abdominal pain lasting more than 5 hours
  • Spreading pain to the back or chest
  • Dark urine or light colored stools

These can be signs of serious complications like infection, pancreatitis, or bile duct obstruction. Ignoring worsening gallbladder pain increases the risk of complications and emergency surgery.

Diagnosing the cause of gallbladder pain

To determine the underlying cause and optimal treatment, your doctor will perform a full evaluation including:

  • Medical history – Looking for risk factors and timing of symptom onset.
  • Physical exam – Checking for fever, abdominal tenderness, jaundice.
  • Blood tests – Assessing for signs of infection, liver issues, pancreatitis.
  • Imaging tests – Ultrasound, CT, or MRI to visualize the gallbladder and bile ducts.
  • HIDA scan – Checks gallbladder emptying function if dyskinesia is suspected.

Identifying any structural problems or complications early is important for proper treatment.

How to relieve gallbladder pain at home

You can try the following measures to help relieve mild to moderate gallbladder pain at home:

  • Over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil)
  • Warm compress on the abdomen
  • Lay on your right side with knees bent
  • Gentle massage of the abdomen
  • Avoid eating fatty, spicy, or gassy foods
  • Stay well hydrated with fluids
  • Get rest until the attack subsides

However, if the pain does not start improving within 2 to 3 hours or gets worse, you should seek medical attention.

Medical treatments for gallbladder pain

Beyond home remedies, there are prescription medications and procedures that can provide more effective relief:

  • Antispasmodics – Medications to relax the gallbladder and help stones pass.
  • Pain medication – Stronger narcotic or anti-inflammatory medicines.
  • Antibiotics – Used if there is an underlying gallbladder infection.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) – Removal of duct blockages using endoscopy.

These can help manage symptoms in the short term, especially if you have frequent recurrences while awaiting elective surgery.

When is gallbladder removal surgery needed?

For chronic gallbladder problems, definitive treatment involves surgically removing the gallbladder, known as a cholecystectomy. This is generally advised if you have:

  • Repeated episodes of severe biliary colic
  • Complications like pancreatitis or cholangitis
  • Persistent cholecystitis not responsive to antibiotics
  • Multiple gallstones
  • Gallbladder non-function or dysfunction

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is the standard procedure, involving 3-4 small abdominal incisions and removal of the gallbladder using a tiny camera.

Gallbladder removal provides long-term relief from pain in over 90% of people with gallstone issues. The surgery has a short recovery time, allowing most people to return to normal activities within 1-2 weeks.

Preventing recurrent gallbladder pain

Some important tips to help prevent future episodes of gallbladder pain after recovery include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating smaller, low-fat meals more frequently
  • Avoiding extended fasting
  • Limiting fatty, fried, sugary, and processed foods
  • Exercising most days of the week
  • Managing chronic health conditions like diabetes

Making these lifestyle modifications can help you avoid becoming symptomatic again, especially if you still have your gallbladder.

When to follow up with your doctor

You should let your doctor know if:

  • The pain lasts more than 24 hours or keeps recurring
  • Nausea, fever, jaundice, or other concerning symptoms develop
  • The pain becomes difficult to control at home
  • Your symptoms are not improving as expected after treatment

Routine follow up is also important after discharge from the hospital or after gallbladder removal surgery to monitor your progress.


In summary, the duration of gallbladder pain can range from less than an hour to several days depending on the specific cause and severity. Most uncomplicated biliary colic resolves within 12-24 hours. However, the pain may persist or recur for longer periods if complications like cholecystitis or bile duct obstruction develop. Seeking prompt medical care for concerning symptoms and adhering to treatment recommendations is important for resolving gallbladder pain as quickly as possible. Removing the gallbladder surgically is often necessary for chronic or recurrent gallbladder disease uncontrolled by other measures. With appropriate management, most people can achieve lasting relief from gallbladder pain.