Gallbladders store fluid from the liver. The fluid is sent to the small intestine to help break down food. Gallstones may be caused by a problem with fluids from the liver such as:

  • Too much cholesterol in the bile
  • Too much bilirubin in the bile
  • Not enough bile salts
  • Problems that make it hard for the gallbladder to empty, such as a blockage

Blockages in the gallbladder can also trap bile and may lead to stones.

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of gallstones are:

  • Having other family members who had gallstones
  • Obesity
  • Rapid weight loss or frequent changes in weight
  • History of intestinal problems
  • Being on IV nutrition
  • A high fat diet
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Smoking
  • Taking certain medicines, such as estrogen, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and thiazide diuretics
  • Problems with the liver, such as cirrhosis
  • Crohn disease



Most people do not have symptoms. Those who do may have pain in the upper right side of the belly. It may last 30 minutes to several hours. Other problems may be:

  • Sudden pain after heavy meals
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Burping
  • Gas
  • Fever or chills
  • Yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes
  • Clay-colored stool


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. Blood tests to look for possible causes or rule out other problems. Urine tests may be also be done.

Gallstones can be seen with:

  • Ultrasound
  • Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)
  • Hepatobiliary scintigraphy (HIDA) scan
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)



Gallstones that do not cause symptoms do not need to be treated. Stones that are causing symptoms or blockages may be treated with:

  • Medicine, such as:
    • Pain relievers
    • Bile salt tablets to dissolve the gallstones
  • Shock wave lithotripsy—device sends energy through skin to break up the gallstones
  • ERCP—scope is passed through the mouth and into the stomach; gallstones can be removed
  • Surgery to remove the gallbladder—cholecystectomy


This risk of gallstones may be lowered by:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Regular exercise
  • Diet that is low in fat and rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods

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.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.