What are gallstones?

Gallstones are small, hard deposits that form in your gallbladder from bile that crystalizes. Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, gas, heartburn, diarrhea, and loss of appetite are common symptoms of gallstones.
Gallstones are small, hard deposits that form in your gallbladder from bile that crystallizes. Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, gas, heartburn, diarrhea, and loss of appetite are common symptoms of gallstones.

Gallstones are small, hard deposits that form in your gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ that rests under your liver and stores bile. Bile is a digestive juice that is made by the liver. Sometimes the bile crystallizes and forms small stones, or gallstones. They range from the size of a grain of sand to as large as a golf ball.

It’s estimated that more than 25 million Americans have gallstones, and up to 75% of those affected are women. In most cases, gallstones don’t cause any symptoms or problems. However, sometimes a gallstone may act up and can cause abdominal pain.

A gallstone can become trapped in a duct, or opening, of the gallbladder, causing sudden, intense stomach pain called biliary colic. The pain lasts until the stones move, which usually takes anywhere from one to five hours.

Signs of or symptoms of gallstones

For most people, gallstones don’t cause any symptoms. The stones that go unnoticed are called silent stones. The onset of gallstone symptoms is called a gallbladder attack and can include:

Abdominal pain

The most common symptom of gallstones is abdominal pain, or biliary colic. This pain is usually located in the right-upper or middle abdomen, just below your ribcage. This pain can sometimes spread out from your abdomen and work its way around to your back or up your right shoulder.

This pain takes about an hour to reach the highest level of intensity, but it may take up to several hours for the pain to subside. The pain may feel like an ache or a sharp, knifelike stab.

Pain in other parts of the body

Besides abdominal pain, another symptom of gallstones is pain or discomfort in other parts of the body {Sepsis Alliance: “Gallstones.”}. For example, you may feel pain:

  • In between your shoulder blades
  • Just under your breastbone
  • In your right shoulder
  • In your chest

The pain doesn’t subside until the gallstone can move, and it won’t be relieved by using the toilet, passing gas, or vomiting.

Other symptoms

In addition to pain, you may experience several other symptoms of a gallbladder attack. Other possible symptoms include:

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Types of gallstones

There are two types of gallstones: cholesterol and pigment. 

Cholesterol gallstones

Cholesterol gallstones are the most common type. They are mainly made of hardened cholesterol and are yellow or green in color.

Pigment gallstones

Pigment gallstones aren’t as common. They are made of a yellow-colored pigment called bilirubin. They are darker in color than cholesterol stones.

Causes of gallstones

Gallstones are caused by imbalances in the substances that make up bile.  About 80% of gallstones are made of cholesterol, which acids in bile can normally break down. However, a high-fat diet can cause the liver to make too much cholesterol that can’t be broken down. Gallbladder attacks tend to occur after a heavy meal, with the onset of symptoms happening at night.

Certain people are at higher risk for gallstones. You are most likely to experience gallstones if you:

When to see the doctor for gallstones

Gallstones usually move on their own, but in certain cases, you should see a doctor. If you have any of these symptoms of gallstones during or after a gallbladder attack, you should seek medical attention:

  • Pain that lasts longer than 5 hours
  • Sweating
  • Chills 
  • Low fever
  • Clay-colored stools

Diagnosis for gallstones

If you make an appointment with your doctor, they will ask you about your gallbladder symptoms. They will likely perform the Murphy’s Sign Test to see if your gallbladder is inflamed.

To do this, your doctor will place their fingers on the upper-right part of your stomach as you breathe in. If you experience pain, this is a sign of an inflamed gallbladder that needs treatment. Your doctor may also order blood tests to check for normal liver function or infection.

If your doctor thinks your symptoms are severe, they may order an ultrasound or MRI to detect the gallstones.

Treatments for gallstones

The treatment for gallstones depends on how serious your symptoms are and the results of any tests you’ve had done. Gallstones that don’t cause pain typically do not require treatment.

If you have a gallbladder attack, most of the time your doctor will suggest that you wait a few hours to see if it will subside on its own. If you have frequent attacks, your doctor may recommend gallbladder surgery. After your first attack, your chance of having another one increases by up to 70%.

If you undergo surgery, your gallbladder will be removed to prevent future attacks. Without surgery, you run the risk of your gallbladder becoming infected or bursting, which can cause other health problems.

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Medically Reviewed on 12/29/2020
References
Cedars Sinai: "Gallstones."

Family Doctor: "Gallstones."

Harvard Health Publishing: "What to do about gallstones."

National Health Service: "Symptoms: Gallstones."

National Health Service: "Diagnosis: Gallstones."

National Health Service: "Complications: Gallstones."

Sepsis Alliance: "Gallstones."