Back pain isn't always related to a spine injury or back problem. You may be experiencing what is known as referred pain that occurs when internal organs send pain signals to other areas of the body. Although you may not realize it, problems with your gallbladder – often caused by inflammation and gallstones – can cause your back to hurt.
Symptoms associated with gallbladder disease can include gas, nausea, diarrhea, and pain in the stomach and back. In addition to pain in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, gallbladder disease can also cause low back pain and pain between the shoulder blades or in the middle of your back.
Some individuals with gallbladder disease experience low back pain associated with biliary colic, resulting from gallstones blocking the bile duct. Pain can come on suddenly, increase in intensity, and last for several hours. When gallstones cause blockages, you can suffer an acute gallbladder attack, which brings on severe symptoms. Although both men and women can suffer from gallbladder disease, women are at higher risk of developing gallstones.
Acute Gallbladder Attack
Back pain that occurs with other abdominal or indigestion-type symptoms often are caused by gallbladder disease, particularly if your symptoms worsen at night or after eating. If you have unexplained back pain that intensifies following meals – especially after eating foods high in fat content, your gallbladder may be the cause.
Severe right anterior rib cage pain and/or right-sided back pain can occur with acute gallbladder attacks. If you have pain in either of these locations, it may hurt to take a deep breath. The pain of an acute gallbladder attack can last longer than the pain associated with biliary colic. Fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, or even loss of appetite are additional symptoms that can occur.
When to Worry
You should contact your doctor about any sudden onset back pain or back pain that remains constant. If you have severe pain accompanied by fever, see a doctor or go to a hospital emergency department right away, as gallbladder problems can lead to complications if infection or significant inflammation sets in.
When gallstones are the problem, your doctor may adopt a wait-and-see approach, especially if the pain subsides. In the meantime, make changes in your diet, including eating more dietary fiber and fewer foods high in saturated and trans fats. Insoluble fiber found in whole grains and vegetables helps food pass through the intestinal tract more quickly, which may help prevent gallstones from forming. Exercise can also contribute to keeping your symptoms from becoming more serious, reducing the risk of complications and the need for gallbladder surgery.
If the stones don't dissolve on their own, your doctor may recommend medication, shock wave therapy to fragment the stones, or removal of gallstones through an endoscopic procedure. But since pain and other symptoms can recur when new gallstones develop – which often happens after removing other gallstones – you may need surgery to remove your gallbladder. Laparoscopic surgery, which involves making several small incisions rather than a single large incision in the abdomen, is the method surgeons commonly use.
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