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Gallstones Symptoms, Signs, Causes and Treatments

Gallstones are a common health issue that can significantly impact a person's well-being. These small, hardened deposits can form in the gallbladder, causing various symptoms and potentially leading to complications if left untreated. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for gallstones is crucial for maintaining good health and preventing further complications.

By Able Health I Medically reviewed by Dr. Alireza Estedlal

Page last reviewed: February 2024 I Next review due: February 2026


  • Gallstones are hard deposits in the gallbladder and can cause pain and discomfort.
  • There are two main types of gallstones: cholesterol stones and pigment stones.
  • Women, people over 60, and those with a family history of gallstones are at higher risk for developing them.
  • Common symptoms of gallstones include abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Treatment options include medication to dissolve the stones, surgery to remove the gallbladder, and lifestyle changes such as a low-fat diet.

What are gallstones, and how do they form?

Gallstones are solid deposits that develop in the gallbladder, a small organ beneath the liver. The gallbladder plays a vital role in the digestive process by storing bile, a substance the liver produces that helps break down fats. When the balance of substances in bile, such as cholesterol and bilirubin, becomes disrupted, gallstones can form.

Gallstones typically form when there is an excess of cholesterol or bilirubin in the bile. Cholesterol stones are the most common type and are usually yellow-green. Pigment stones, on the other hand, are smaller and darker in colour, resulting from an excess of bilirubin. Various factors, including diet, genetics, and certain medical conditions, can influence the formation of gallstones.

Understanding the different types of gallstones

There are two main types of gallstones: cholesterol stones and pigment stones.

  • Cholesterol stones are composed primarily of cholesterol and account for about 80% of all gallstones. They form when there is an imbalance between cholesterol and bile salts in the gallbladder.
  • Pigment stones, on the other hand, are made up of bilirubin and calcium salts. They are less common but can occur in individuals with certain medical conditions, such as cirrhosis or hemolytic anaemia.

It is important to note that while cholesterol stones are more prevalent, pigment stones are more problematic as they can cause blockages in the bile ducts. Understanding the type of gallstones a person has is crucial for determining the most appropriate treatment approach.

Who is at risk for developing gallstones?

Several factors can increase a person's risk of developing gallstones. Some of common factors are:

  • Gender: Women are twice as likely to develop gallstones than men
  • Age: People over 60 years old are at higher risk
  • Obesity: Being overweight or obese increases the risk
  • Diet: A high-fat, high-cholesterol diet increases the risk
  • Family history: Having a family history of gallstones increases the risk
  • Medical conditions Medical conditions such as diabetes, liver disease, and Crohn's disease increase the risk

Individuals with these risk factors must be aware of the potential for gallstone formation and take steps to prevent their development.

Common symptoms of gallstones to look out for

Gallstones can cause a range of symptoms, although some individuals may not experience any symptoms at all. When symptoms do occur, they are often referred to as a "gallbladder attack."

  • The most common symptom is severe abdominal pain, typically located in the upper right side or middle of the abdomen. This pain can be intermittent or constant and may radiate to the back or shoulder.
  • Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, bloating, indigestion, and a feeling of fullness after eating.
  • Some individuals may also experience jaundice, which is characterized by yellowing of the skin and eyes.

It is important to note that these symptoms can also indicate other health issues, so it is essential to consult a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis.

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How are gallstones diagnosed?

If gallstones are suspected based on symptoms or risk factors, various diagnostic tests can be performed to confirm their presence.

  • The most common test is an ultrasound, which uses sound waves to create images of the gallbladder and detect the presence of stones.
  • Blood tests may also be conducted to check for elevated levels of bilirubin or liver enzymes, which can indicate gallstone-related complications.
  • In some cases, additional imaging tests such as a CT scan or MRI may be necessary to provide a more detailed view of the gallbladder and surrounding structures.

These diagnostic tests are crucial for determining the appropriate treatment approach and ruling out other potential causes of symptoms.

Complications that can arise from untreated gallstones

If left untreated, gallstones can lead to various complications that can significantly impact a person's health.

One common complication is cholecystitis, which occurs when a gallstone blocks the cystic duct, leading to inflammation and infection of the gallbladder. This can cause severe abdominal pain, fever, and potentially life-threatening complications if not promptly treated.

Another potential complication is pancreatitis, when a gallstone blocks the pancreatic duct, leading to inflammation. Pancreatitis can cause severe abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting and can be life-threatening if not treated promptly. Other complications include bile duct obstruction, gallbladder perforation, and the formation of abscesses.

Lifestyle changes that can help prevent gallstones

While some risk factors for gallstones cannot be changed, such as age and gender, certain lifestyle modifications can help reduce the risk of developing gallstones. Maintaining a healthy weight through regular exercise and a balanced diet is crucial, as obesity is a significant risk factor for gallstone formation.

A diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol and high in fibre can also help prevent gallstones. Including plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins in your diet is recommended. It is also important to stay hydrated by drinking adequate water each day.

Regular physical activity is essential for maintaining a healthy weight and promoting good gallbladder function. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week. Avoid crash diets or rapid weight loss, as these can increase the risk of gallstone formation.

Medications used to dissolve gallstones

In some cases, medications may be prescribed to help dissolve gallstones. These medications, known as bile acid pills, break down cholesterol in the bile and prevent the formation of new stones. However, they are typically only effective for small cholesterol stones and may take several months or even years to dissolve them completely.

It is important to note that medication therapy is not suitable for everyone and should be discussed with a healthcare professional. Regular monitoring and follow-up appointments are necessary to assess the effectiveness of the medication and ensure there are no adverse side effects.

Surgical options for removing gallstones

Surgery is often the most effective treatment option for gallstones, particularly if they are causing symptoms or complications. The most common surgical procedure for gallstone removal is laparoscopic cholecystectomy. This minimally invasive procedure involves making several small incisions in the abdomen and using a laparoscope (a thin tube with a camera) to visualize and remove the gallbladder.

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy offers several advantages over traditional open surgery, including shorter recovery time, less pain, and smaller scars. In some cases, open surgery may be necessary if there are complications or if laparoscopic surgery is not feasible.

Alternative treatments for gallstones

In addition to conventional medical treatments, some individuals may explore alternative or complementary therapies for managing gallstones. It is important to note that these treatments have not been extensively studied or proven to be effective in scientific research.

Some alternative treatments that have been suggested for gallstones include herbal remedies, such as milk thistle and dandelion root, which are believed to support liver function and promote bile flow. Some individuals may also consider acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine.

It is crucial to consult with a qualified healthcare professional before pursuing any alternative treatments for gallstones. They can provide guidance and ensure that these treatments do not interfere with any prescribed medications or recommended medical interventions.

How to manage pain and discomfort caused by gallstones

If you are experiencing pain or discomfort due to gallstones, there are several strategies you can try to help manage these symptoms. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, can provide temporary relief from mild to moderate pain.

Applying heat to the affected area, such as using a heating pad or taking a warm bath, may also help alleviate discomfort. It is important to rest and avoid activities that worsen the pain. If symptoms persist or worsen, it is essential to seek medical attention for further evaluation and treatment.

Dietary recommendations for managing gallstones

Making dietary changes can play a significant role in managing gallstones and reducing the risk of complications. A diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol is recommended to prevent the formation of new gallstones. This means limiting the consumption of fatty meats, fried foods, processed snacks, and high-fat dairy products.

Including plenty of fibre in your diet can also help prevent gallstones. Fibre-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, can help regulate cholesterol levels and promote healthy digestion. It is important to drink an adequate amount of water each day to stay hydrated and support proper bile flow.

Avoiding rapid weight loss or crash diets is crucial, as these can increase the risk of gallstone formation. Instead, aim for gradual and sustainable weight loss through a combination of healthy eating and regular physical activity.

In Conclusion, gallstones are a common health issue that can have a significant impact on a person's well-being if left untreated. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for gallstones is crucial for maintaining good health and preventing further complications. If you are experiencing symptoms or have risk factors for gallstone formation, it is important to seek medical attention for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. By making lifestyle changes, exploring medical interventions, and following healthcare professional recommendations, you can effectively manage gallstones and improve your overall quality of life.

What are gallstones?

Gallstones are small, hard deposits that form in the gallbladder, a small organ located beneath the liver.

What are the symptoms of gallstones?

Symptoms of gallstones include sudden and intense pain in the upper right abdomen, nausea, vomiting, fever, and yellowing of the skin and eyes.

What causes gallstones?

Gallstones are caused by an imbalance in the substances that make up bile, a fluid that helps digest fats. Factors that increase the risk of developing gallstones include obesity, a high-fat diet, and certain medical conditions.

How are gallstones diagnosed?

Gallstones are typically diagnosed through imaging tests such as ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI.

What are the treatment options for gallstones?

Treatment options for gallstones include medication to dissolve the stones, surgery to remove the gallbladder, or a procedure called lithotripsy that uses shock waves to break up the stones.

Can gallstones be prevented?

Gallstones can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, eating a low-fat diet, and staying physically active.