Mind-Body Disorders: Gallbladder Pain
Could gallbladder pain be due to mind-body syndrome? It was in my case!
I had my first (supposed) gallbladder attack summer of 2005. My mom was visiting us in Austin, TX, we had gone to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and about an hour after dinner I started getting significant right upper quadrant pain below my ribs. The pain kept getting worse, was radiating to my back, and my stomach started distending to the point of looking pregnant. I had never experienced pain like this and was afraid to take a pain killer. I lasted until about midnight, at which point I asked Bob to take me to the ER. It was that bad!
At the ER it took a while to get admitted and the pain was excruciating. Other than the pain from endometriosis, I had never been in that much pain in my life. It took a while to get admitted and based on what I was describing, the ER doc said it sounded like a gallbladder attack. He gave me some morphine for the pain, said he wanted to run an ultrasound, and that I should be prepared to have my gallbladder taken out that night. What?!
After he left, I looked at Bob in shock. I did not expect to have surgery that night and I certainly did not want my gallbladder taken out. Once the morphine kicked in I started to feel better and eventually was taken up for the ultrasound. Thankfully they could not find any gallstones and sent me home. They did say the timing of the ultrasound needs to be just right and to come back another time to get rechecked. The doctor was certain that I had gallstones and that I would eventually need to have my gallbladder removed.
That was the start of dealing with the same kind of attack about every 2 to 3 months until around 2017. I was on a very low carb diet back then and eating a lot of fat, but often the attacks would happen after a super fatty meal, confirming the gallstone diagnosis. Everything I had read about gallstones and gallbladder attacks indicated that a high fat diet was the problem. Everything I had read about gallstones and gallbladder disease also fit all of my symptoms.
Every time I got an attack I would immediately stop eating and fast for a day or two. Other than taking pain killers, it was the only way to reduce and eventually stop the pain. I would consume only black coffee, water, and fresh squeezed lemon juice. I hated it but it was my way to cope with the attacks. I also did gallbladder cleanses from time to time, which were awful. If you have never done one, it involves drinking A LOT of Epsom salt dissolved in water, and when it kicks in, spending the rest of the day on the toilet (sorry if this is TMI!). If you have never had Epsom salt, it's very bitter and I got to the point where I just couldn't do the cleanses anymore. Simply smelling the Epsom salt caused such horrible nausea, there was no way I could drink as much as was required to drink for the cleanse.
Since finding out about TMS I have had less attacks, but they still continued to happen on a somewhat regular basis. In the beginning, still thinking there is something wrong with my gallbladder, I would do the same thing: stop eating, drink only coffee, water, and lemon juice for a few days, then start adding regular food back in gradually, but keep it low fat.
However, it finally occurred to me that even gallbladder pain could be due to mind-body syndrome and the next time I had an attack, which happened to be close to dinner time, I decided not to give in to the pain and had a normal dinner. I had some pain that night, and some distention, but not nearly as bad as it would have been in the past, and the next day I was fine. This was proof to me that the pain must be due to mind-body syndrome.
I have not had one of these attacks in a while, but this past Sunday, I was sitting in class at bible school, and that familiar pain started below my right rib. Instead of panicking and catastrophizing, I stayed calm and just reminded myself that it's just my brain. I couldn't really talk out loud since I was in class, but I kept reassuring myself in my mind that I don't need pain. At the same time, a thought came to my mind that I should probably skip the protein bar I had brought for a snack. However, that would have been an avoidance behavior, signaling to my brain that there is something wrong.
Break time came and I ate my bar because I was hungry. The pain stayed about the same but on the way home from class, it started getting a little bit worse. Bob and I had planned on making steaks for dinner that night, and any doctor would tell you to avoid steak if you have gallbladder issues. So on the way home I told my brain to stop and that I would eat whatever I want and that there would be no pain.
I got home, we made steak, I made bacon for our salads, I snacked on the bacon and other foods while we were cooking, and then I ate my steak dinner as planned. I also had some homemade coconut milk ice cream after dinner. Again, the pain started to get worse, but I stayed calm, reminded myself that it's just my brain, and went about my evening.
In the past, eating a meal like that with the pain I was already experiencing would have resulted in a full blown attack. Often the pain would hit me during the night, but not this time. I had a great evening, I slept great, and woke up the next morning feeling fine because the pain was just from my brain. I did ask myself what I was feeling or what I didn't want to deal with emotionally, but nothing came up. You don't necessarily need to find the repressed emotion to get rid of pain and this shows that even gallbladder pain can be due to mind-body syndrome.
When we buy into the lies, and believe them, it can worsen the pain. The resulting fear then worsens the pain even more, because pain is a danger signal. When you have fear, it's a confirmation to the brain that there actually IS danger, and the pain continues and/or gets worse. This applies to anything - pain, allergies, anxiety, depression, other GI issues, and a host of other symptoms. The key difference with this last incidence was that I truly believed that there is nothing wrong with my gallbladder. As long as you have doubt, the brain will continue to cause pain, and it can cause pain (and other symptoms) anywhere in your body.
Are you struggling with chronic pain or other chronic health issues? Have you considered that you may be dealing with mind-body syndrome? You can read more about mind-body syndrome here and take a free self-assessment.
If you have any questions, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.