What Are Gallstones?

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Story at-a-glance

  • Gallstones are hardened deposits of digestive fluid that form in your gallbladder, a small-pear shaped organ located at the right side of the abdomen and right below the liver
  • Gallstones are usually made of a substance produced by the liver called bile, which is composed of water, cholesterol, fat protein, bilirubin and bile salts

Gallstones are hardened deposits of digestive fluid that form in your gallbladder, a small-pear shaped organ located at the right side of the abdomen and right below the liver. Gallstone sizes vary, with some as small as a grain of sand, and others as large as a golf ball.1 These stones are more common among women, the elderly and overweight people.2 Oftentimes, some people develop just a single gallstone, although some have multiple gallstones at the same time.3

How Do Gallstones Affect Your Body?

If left untreated, gallstones may lead to unwanted complications such as:4

Gallbladder inflammation: If a gallstone becomes lodged in the neck of the gallbladder, it can prompt gallbladder inflammation or cholecystitis, and trigger severe pain and fever.

Blockage of the common bile duct: Multiple gallstones can block tubes or ducts that facilitate the passage of bile from your gallbladder or liver to your small intestine. Once this happens, it can lead to an infection of the bile duct, as well as jaundice.

Blockage of the pancreatic duct and gallstone pancreatitis: This duct is a tube that runs from the pancreas to the common bile duct, and serves as a passageway for pancreatic juices that aid in digestion.

If the stone blocks this pathway, it can prompt gallstone pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).5 People with gallstone pancreatitis experience intense and constant abdominal pain, and may require hospitalization.

Gallbladder cancer: It's said that people with a history of gallstones may have a higher risk for gallbladder cancer. However, this type of cancer is very rare, so even if there’s an elevated cancer risk, the likelihood of this disease affecting a person may be very small.

Can You Get Gallstones While Pregnant?

Women are more prone to having gallstones,6 and this risk may increase during pregnancy. More cases of gallstones may occur during this period.7

Gallstones are usually made of a substance produced by the liver called bile, which is composed of water, cholesterol, fat protein, bilirubin and bile salts, and is eventually stored in the gallbladder until the body needs it. Once it’s needed, bile is released into the small intestine, where it assists with digesting fats.8

Gallstone development begins because of an imbalance in the gallbladder, for example, when  high levels of cholesterol or bilirubin occur, or when there are not enough bile salts to process the lipids in the bile. They also can occur if your gallbladder doesn’t empty properly.9

During pregnancy, the body increases its production of a hormone called estrogen to support the growing baby’s needs. Higher estrogen levels in the body may prompt the cholesterol levels in bile to increase and lead to gallstone formation. In some cases, gallstones do not trigger problems or symptoms and may even go away on their own after the baby’s delivery. However, pregnant women who experience any of these conditions must consult their OB/GYN or physician immediately:

Steady and increasing pain in the upper right part of the abdomen, especially after eating a fatty meal

Pain between the shoulder blades or under the right shoulder

Abdominal pain that lasts more than five hours

Nausea and vomiting

Fever or chills

Jaundice or yellowing skin

Clay-colored stools


An abdominal ultrasound can confirm the presence of gallstones. Prior to undergoing any examination for gallstones, remind your doctor or physician about your pregnancy. Certain gallstone diagnostic tests, such as an oral cholecystogram (X-ray of the gallbladder), computed tomography (CT) scan or nuclear scan, aren’t safe for pregnant women.

How to Distinguish Gallstones From Kidney Stones

Although both types of stones occur in the lower part of the body, there are key differences between gallstones and kidney stones:10

Gallstones Kidney Stones

Hard lumps that develop in the gallbladder

Hard crystalline stones that form within the kidney or urinary tract

Composed of either cholesterol or calcium bilirubinate

These stones are made of calcium, struvite, cysteine or uric acid

Common symptoms include pain below the ribs or right shoulder, nausea, sweating, restlessness and fever

Common symptoms include pain below the ribs, back or right shoulder, nausea, sweating, restlessness, fever and colicky pain that comes in waves

More prevalent among females

More prevalent among males

MORE ABOUT GALLSTONES

Gallstones: Introduction

What Are Gallstones?

Gallstones Symptoms

Gallstones Causes

Gallstones Treatment

Gallstones Surgery

Gallstones Prevention

Gallstones Diet

Gallstones FAQ

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Gallstones Symptoms

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1, 3, 4 Mayo Clinic Staff, “Gallstones Symptoms and Causes,” Mayo Clinic, August 18, 2016
  • 2 “Statistics for Gallstones,” Florida Hospital
  • 5 Choi and Silverman, “Gallstone Pancreatitis,” American College of Gastroenterology
  • 6 “Gallstones,” US News Health, July 23, 2009
  • 7 McCoy and Haines, “Gallstones and Pregnancy,” Everyday Health, January 26, 2010
  • 8 Mayo Clinic Staff, “Gallstones Symptoms and Causes,” Mayo Clinic, August 18, 2016
  • 9 Mayo Clinic, “Gallstones”
  • 10 Garikiparithi, “Gallstones Vs. Kidney Stones, Common Risk Connection, Treatment and Prevention,” Bel Marra Health, November 5, 2015