Gallstones are a very common digestive problem, particularly among women. It’s estimated that more than 25 million people in the United States have gallstones, according to the National Institutes of Health. 

“It’s important to understand the causes, signs and symptoms of gallstones so you can get prompt treatment and avoid future gallbladder attacks,” explains Brian Billings, M.D., general surgeon.

Take the first steps to better health by reviewing the basics about gallstones.

What are gallstones?

Gallstones (sometimes called cholelithiasis) are hard and pebble-like. They are usually made from cholesterol or bilirubin. There is no standard size of gallstones. One large gallstone may form, there may be many small stones, or there can be small and large stones. 

Gallstones begin in the gallbladder, which is a small organ that helps with digestion. It is located in your upper right abdomen. Part of the biliary tract (along with bile ducts), the gallbladder stores and sends bile and digestive enzymes to the small intestine to help your body digest food. Gallstones cause pain when they block these bile ducts and interfere with the body’s ability to send bile to the intestine.

What are signs and symptoms of gallstones?

The most common symptom of gallstones is sudden, intense pain in the upper right part of your abdomen. Other signs and symptoms of gallstones include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever and chills
  • Jaundice (yellow coloring of skin to whites of the eyes)
  • Tea-colored urine
  • Light-colored stools

Most of the time, gallstones do not cause any symptoms. These gallstones are not blocking the bile ducts and don’t require any treatment.

Who is at risk of developing gallstones?

Many different risk factors can increase your likelihood of developing gallstones. Certain groups of people are more likely to experience a gallbladder attack, including:

  • Women
  • Older individuals
  • American Indians 
  • Mexican Americans
  • Individuals with a family history of gallstones

Medical conditions can also increase your risk of developing gallstones:

  • Cirrhosis
  • Bile duct infections
  • Hemolytic anemias
  • Crohn’s disease
  • High triglyceride levels
  • Low levels of high-density lipid cholesterol, or HDL
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Diabetes and insulin resistance

Being overweight or obese, and rapid weight loss (from weight loss surgery) can also put you at higher risk of a gallbladder attack.

Can gallstones be prevented?

Gallstones can’t be completely prevented, but there may be some ways you can lower your risk.

“A well-balanced diet, regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight may help reduce your risk of developing gallstones – and is of course a great way to stay healthy and well,” says Dr. Billings. 

Studies have also suggested that incorporating certain habits may help prevent gallstones, including:

  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Eat more fiber and healthy fats
  • Reduce sugar intake and refined carbohydrates
  • Avoid weight cycling (rapid weight loss and weight gain)

How are gallstones treated?

Gallstones only need to be treated if they are causing symptoms. The most common treatment for frequent gallbladder attacks is surgery to remove the gallbladder. That’s usually a minimally invasive surgery, and individuals are often able to go home the same day. Some may need traditional open surgery, which requires a longer recovery time. 

Some gallstones can be treated without surgery. Treatments may include:

  • Endoscopy to remove a gallstone stuck in the bile duct
  • Medication to break up gallstones
  • Shock wave lithotripsy to break gallstones into smaller pieces

Learn more about gallstones and find answers to your abdominal pain. Find a provider near you, Riverside Surgical Specialists.

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