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Gallstones: Symptoms and Treatments

Gallstones: Symptoms and Treatments

Sep. 27th, 2021

Gallstones are a common health concern that affect between 10 and 15% of people in the United States.1 The risk of gallstones increases with age: 24% of women and 15% of men will experience gallstones by the age of 70.2 

Gallstones develop in the gallbladder and may go unnoticed until they cause extreme pain. This typically results in surgery to remove the gallstones or the gallbladder.

While gallstones are treatable, there are a few signs you should look out for if you think that you might be at risk. Here are a few ways gallstones are formed, as well as some of the factors that may make you more susceptible to getting them.

What are Gallstones?

Gallstones occur when the bile in the gallbladder forms into a hard lump, which is why they’re referred to as “stones”. The gallbladder is a small organ on the right side of the abdomen that stores and dispenses bile, which is released into the small intestine when your body needs it for the digestion process.3 Bile is what helps you digest the fats in food you eat.4

Gallstones can vary in size and can grow to be the size of a golf ball.1 This is large in comparison to the gallbladder, which is approximately the size of a pear.5 The gallbladder is an organ you can live without if it needs to be removed due to gallstones because it’s simply a temporary holding place for bile.6

How gallstones are formed is not completely known for certain, but researchers and medical professionals have some ideas as to how they may develop.7 

  • Too much cholesterol in bile. If the bile in your body can’t break down the cholesterol, stones will form with the excess cholesterol.8 This is the most common way that gallstones are formed.
  • Too much bilirubin in bile. Bilirubin is created when red blood cells break down.4 If your liver makes too much bilirubin, the excess can turn into gallstones.
  • Full gallbladder. If your gallbladder is not properly emptying as it should, this is another way gallstones can form.8


Symptoms of gallstones will vary depending on the person and size of the gallstone. Some people will experience no symptoms at all, meaning that their gallstones are not creating a dangerous threat to their body and health.

When gallstones cause pain, some of the common symptoms might include4:

  • Pain in the upper right abdomen
  • Chest pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Back pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

If someone is experiencing severe symptoms such as extreme abdominal pain, high fever, or yellowing of the skin, they should seek medical attention immediately.3

To diagnose a patient with gallstones, doctors may use a cholesterol test, a blood test, an ultrasound, or an X-ray.9

Risk Factors

There are certain factors that can put individuals at a greater risk for developing gallstones.

According to Very Well Health, here are some common risk factors:

  • Genetics – If people in your family have had gallstones, you might have a greater chance of developing gallstones.
  • Obesity – Individuals who are overweight may be more at risk for developing gallstones. This is due to having more cholesterol in their blood or because their gallbladder cannot function properly due to the excess weight.
  • Weight loss – Extreme weight loss in a short amount of time can increase your risk of gallstones.
  • Diet – A strict diet may increase your chances of developing gallstones. When there is a shift in your body’s cholesterol and bile salts, gallstones can form. Fasting or skipping meals can cause the gallbladder to decrease its contractions, which can in turn create gallstones.
  • Older adults – Adults over the age of 40 are at a higher risk of developing gallstones than those younger than 40.
  • Other health conditions – Health conditions such as diabetes, Crohn’s, liver disease, cirrhosis, and anemia increase the likelihood of someone developing gallstones.

Long-Term Risks

When gallstones cause pain or are left untreated, they can create further risks and health complications.

Here are some of the common concerns after developing gallstones7:

  • Acute cholecystitis – If gallstones block bile from leaving the gallbladder, this can cause inflammation and infection. Although this is not extremely common, it is a medical emergency. Symptoms may include intense pain, fever, and vomiting.
  • Sepsis – Sepsis, a blood infection, occurs as the body’s response to infections. If the gallstones try to leave the gallbladder and get stuck, inflammation and infection can occur, which can lead to sepsis.11
  • Pancreatitis – Gallstones can cause pancreatitis if they block the bile duct. When the gallstones block the bile duct, it forces pancreatic enzymes back into the pancreas and causes inflammation.12
  • Gallbladder cancer – Although developing gallbladder cancer is rare, gallstones increase the risk. Three out of four people who have gallbladder cancer also have gallstones.13


Doctors will consider treatments to remove gallstones or the gallbladder when patients experience pain or if they’re at risk for other health complications. Here are some of those cases:

  • Gallbladder inflammation.
  • Blockage of bile ducts.
  • Gallstones move into intestines.

Gallstones become dangerous when they block bile ducts or move from the gallbladder because they can cause inflammation and infection.

The treatments for gallstones include9:

  • Cholecystectomy. This is a common procedure in which the gallbladder is removed.7 This surgery is minimally invasive, meaning only small incisions are necessary.
  • Medication. Oral medications can be taken to help dissolve gallstones. This option is typically only for people who cannot go through with the surgery because it may take a long time and the gallstones can reappear.13

Learn About Your Risk Today

Take the time to learn more about your risk of developing gallstones, as well as some healthy lifestyle tips to prevent them.

Here at Saber Healthcare, our medical staff members work diligently to provide the care that our residents need. To learn more about what we do, click here.

Saber Healthcare is an organization dedicated to providing consultant services to long term care providers. This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to be seen as professional advice. Please consult with a medical expert before relying on the information provided.


  1. “Definition & Facts for Gallstones.” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. November 2017, Accessed September 21st, 2021.,How%20common%20are%20gallstones%3F,be%20treated%2C%20usually%20with%20surgery.
  2. “Prompt gallbladder removal in elderly associated with increased survival, lower costs.” ScienceDaily, June 2nd, 2010. Accessed September 23rd, 2021.
  3. “Gallstones.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Mayo Clinic. August 20th, 2021. Accessed September 22nd, 2021.,your%20small%20intestine%20(duodenum).
  4. “Gallstones.” Cleveland Clinic, October 7th, 2019. Accessed September 22nd, 2021.
  5. Hoffman, Matthew. “Picture of the Gallbladder.” WebMD, June 23rd, 2021. Accessed September 22nd, 2021.
  6. Bayless, Kate. “Do You Actually Need Your Gallbladder?” Hearst Magazine Media, Women’s Health. March 31st, 2016. Accessed September 22nd, 2021.
  7. Macon, Brindles. “Understanding Gallstones: Types, Pain, and More.” Healthline Media, March 22nd, 2019. Accessed September 22nd, 2021.
  8. Khatri, Minesh. “Gallstones (Cholelithiasis).” WebMD, February 16th, 2020. Accessed September 22nd, 2021.
  9. Felman, Adam. Healthline Media, Medical News Today. July 13th, 2021. Accessed September 21st, 2021.
  10. Cornforth, Tracee. “Causes and Risk Factors of Gallstones.” Dotdash, Very Well Health. August 22nd, 2021. Accessed September 22nd, 2021.
  11. “Gallstones.” Sepsis Alliance, March 3rd, 2021. Accessed September 22nd, 2021.,often%20deadly%20response%20to%20infection.
  12. “Pancreatitis caused by gallstones.” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Mayo Clinic. Accessed September 22nd, 2021.
  13. “Gallbladder Cancer Causes.” Stanford Health Care, Accessed September 22nd, 2021.