The gallbladder is located under the liver and near the stomach. Gallstones are pieces of stone-like material that collect in the gallbladder. Gallstones are made of cholesterol salts or bilirubin salts. Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. The gallbladder can develop just one large stone, hundreds of tiny stones, or almost any combination of these.
Gallstones are caused when bile or cholesterol crystalizes into stones.
Gallstones can form under the following conditions:
Too much cholesterol in the bile
Too much bilirubin in the bile
Not enough bile salts
When the gallbladder does not empty completely or often enough because of blockage or poor contraction
People aged 60 years of older are at increased risk for gallstones. Women between 20-60 years old and those with high estrogen levels are also at increased risk. People of Native American, Mexican American, and Northern European descent are also at increased risk.
Other factors that may increase your chances of gallstones:
Certain medications can increase your risk of gallstones such as:
Many people have gallstones without symptoms, called silent gallstones. In some cases, these are treated.
Gallstones may cause pain in the upper abdomen. This is sometimes called a gallbladder attack because it begins suddenly, often after a fatty meal. The pain is severe and may last for 30 minutes or several hours.
Other symptoms include:
Intermittent pain on the right, below the rib cage—the pain may spread
Bloating, nausea, and vomiting
Belching, gas, and indigestion
If you have the following symptoms, see your doctor right away:
Yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes—
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with blood tests.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
Talk to your doctor about the best treatment plan for you.
—The removal of the gallbladder through several small incisions in the abdomen. To view the gallbladder, a small, lighted tube with a camera is inserted into one of the incisions. Surgical instruments are used to remove the gallbladder through one of the other incisions.
Open cholecystectomy—The removal of the gallbladder through a large incision in the abdomen. This is necessary if there is an infection in the abdomen or a great deal of scar tissue.
You may be prescribed:
Over-the-counter or prescription medication to control pain.
Bile salt tablets to dissolve gallstones. These medications may need to be taken for months or years until the stones are dissolved.
Other treatments may include:
Shock wave lithotripsy—a machine shockwaves that pass through the body to break the gallstone into smaller pieces
ERCP—a combination of endoscopy and x-rays are used to locate and remove gallstones before or during gallbladder surgery
Gallstones. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/condition/gallstones. Updated March 2014. Accessed December 20, 2017.
Gallstones. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/gallstones. Accessed December 20, 2017.
6/18/2014 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114033/Gallstones: Singh-Bhinder N, Kim, DH, Holly BP, et al. American College of Radiology (ACR) Appropriateness Criteria on right upper quadrant pain. Available at: https://acsearch.acr.org/docs/69413/Narrative. Updated 2013.
EBSCO Information Services is fully accredited by URAC. URAC is an independent, nonprofit health care accrediting organization dedicated to promoting health care quality through accreditation, certification and commendation.
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
To send comments or feedback to our Editorial Team regarding the content please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our Health Library Support team will respond to your email request within 2 business days.