Signs and Symptoms of Gallstones

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gallstones symptoms
Illustration by Joshua Seong. © Verywell, 2018.

When you think of gallstones, you may think of a painful attack. However, the truth is that more than 80 percent of people with gallstones will never experience a symptom in their lifetime. What's more, the likelihood of experiencing symptoms diminishes over time, although your chance of developing gallstones increases as you age. Symptoms of gallstones tend to be fairly noticeable and painful.

Frequent Symptoms

When symptoms of gallstones do occur, they are often called an "attack" because they occur suddenly. Gallstone attacks often follow fatty meals and they may occur during the night. Only 1 percent to 4 percent of individuals with gallstones will develop symptoms each year.

The typical gallstone attack includes these symptoms:

  • Steady, severe pain in your upper abdomen that increases rapidly and lasts from 30 minutes to several hours
  • Pain in your back between your shoulder blades and/or under your right shoulder
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain in the center of your abdomen

Other symptoms of gallstones can include:

  • Abdominal bloating
  • Recurring intolerance of fatty foods
  • Colic
  • Belching
  • Gas
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn

Asymptomatic Gallstones

Even though around 10 percent to 15 percent of Americans have gallstones, again, the vast majority of them will never have symptoms (asymptomatic). Gallstones that cause no symptoms are called "silent stones." Silent stones do not interfere with your gallbladder, liver, or pancreas function and do not require treatment.

Complications

Complications can occur as a result of gallstones. In fact, many people have no symptoms that indicate that they have gallstones until they end up with complications. Potential complications include:

  • Organ infection or damage: If gallstones block the ducts for an extended period of time, severe, possibly fatal damage or infections can occur in the gallbladder, the liver, or the pancreas.
  • Inflammation: Gallstones can block other ducts. These include the hepatic ducts, which carry bile from the liver, and the common bile duct, which takes bile from the cystic and hepatic ducts to the small intestine. When bile becomes trapped in one of the ducts, inflammation can occur in the gallbladder or the ducts. In rare cases, if bile is trapped in the hepatic duct, inflammation of the liver can occur.
  • Gallstone pancreatitis: A gallstone can also block the pancreatic duct, a duct that carries digestive enzymes from the pancreas. When the pancreatic duct is blocked, the digestive enzymes are trapped and a painful inflammation can occur. 
  • Gallbladder cancer: Though gallbladder cancer is extremely rare, your chances of getting it are higher if you have had gallstones.

When to See a Doctor

If you have any symptoms of gallstones, you should always see your doctor to get them checked out. If untreated, gallstones can become fatal.

If you experience any of these symptoms during or after you have a gallstone attack, you should seek immediate medical attention:

  • Abdominal pain that doesn't go away after several hours or that's particularly severe
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Low-grade fever
  • Yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • Clay-colored stools
  • Urine that's the color of tea

These symptoms can mean you're having serious complications such as blockage of your pancreatic duct, common bile duct, or hepatic duct, or even infection in your gallbladder, liver, or pancreas. Getting treatment as soon as possible is essential to your recovery.

Sources:

Lee JY, Keane MG, Pereira S. Diagnosis and Treatment of Gallstone Disease . Practitioner . June 2015;259(1783):15-9, 2.

Mayo Clinic Staff. Gallstones . Mayo Clinic. November 17, 2017.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Gallstones . National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. November 2017.