Gallstones: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Did you know that gallstones are a condition affecting as many as 1 in 12 Americans, making it the fifth leading cause of hospitalization for adults in the U.S? To understand gallstones better, it is necessary to learn about the gallbladder – an organ where gallstones form.

The gallbladder is a storage pool for an emulsifying fluid produced by the liver called bile. Generally, when you eat, the gallbladder releases bile, which is transported through bile ducts to the small intestine to digest food particles.

What are Gallstones?

Gallstone is a solid crystallized deposit that forms when the natural balance of the substances that make up bile becomes disturbed. These substances are cholesterol, bile salts, and waste products such as the pigment bilirubin.

While not all gallstones are painful and cause noticeable symptoms, you should consult your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment if you experience excruciating pain on the right side of your upper abdomen.

Causes of Gallstone

Even doctors do not know what causes gallstones to form. Several factors cause the formation of gallstones, and these are:

  • Researchers believe that gallstones form when the bile in the gallbladder contains too much cholesterol and bilirubin.
  • They can also occur when the gallbladder does not empty.

Native Americans develop gallstones more often than any other segment of the population.

Types of Gallstone

There are two types of gallstones which are:

Cholesterol Gallstone

The most common gallstones affecting 80% of patients are cholesterol gallstones, which occur due to excess cholesterol in the bile. This type of gallstone is yellow.

Pigment Gallstone

Pigment gallstones are dark brown and occur due to excessive pigment production such as bilirubin.

Risk Factors of Gallstone

Generally, gallstones tend to run in families (genetic); however other risk factors can lead to gallstone formation. These include:

  • High levels of estrogen or cholesterol.
  • Obesity
  • Medication such as birth control or cholesterol-lowering drugs
  • Underlying health conditions such as diabetes or liver diseases
  • Pregnancy
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

The risk of developing gallstones increases with age, and young women are more likely to develop gallstones than men due to estrogen, which promotes the development of stones.

Symptoms of Gallstone

Most people with gallstones do not experience symptoms and are unaware that they even have them; however, in some cases, a gallstone may become an obstruction blocking the bile duct, causing severe pain in the abdominal area (biliary colic).

This pain can be very sudden and can often spread up the right side of the body to the shoulder and arm. Other gallstones symptoms include jaundice, restlessness, sweating, nausea, and vomiting.


A gastroenterologist is most qualified to diagnose gallstones and develop the best treatment options. Your doctor will perform a physical examination for abdominal pain, jaundice, or swelling symptoms.

Your doctor may order a blood test to detect evidence of obstruction in the bile duct and to determine if the condition is related to other underlying conditions such as ulcers and appendicitis.


Gallstone treatment varies depending on the severity of your condition. Gallstones generally do not cause life-threatening conditions; as such, you can leave them untreated. However, if they cause severe pain, you may need to visit a doctor.

Since the gallbladder is not a vital organ and you can survive without one, your doctor may perform a cholecystectomy (removal of the gallbladder). Most cholecystectomy procedures take place laparoscopically to limit postoperative pain and promote a quick recovery.

Other non-surgical procedures your doctor may perform are:

  • Shock wave lithotripsy
  • Percutaneous drainage of the gallbladder
  • Oral dissolution therapy

Prevention of Gallstone

Food is the number one cause of gallbladder problems; therefore, a proper diet is all you need to prevent gallstones from happening. The easiest way to prevent gallstones is to limit food intake with high saturated fat contents. Some of these foods with saturated fat include:

  • Cakes
  • Fatty meats such as bacon
  • Cheese
  • Cookies

Always include water-soluble fibers in your diet. Vegetables and fruits are excellent sources of these fibers. Additionally, you can exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight.

Final Thought

While you may be living with gallstones and not experience any noticeable symptoms, your loved ones might not be so lucky. So always seek professional advice when you feel a sharp pain in your abdomen and other signs of gallbladder disease.