Signs and Symptoms of Gallstones

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.

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

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 1-4% of individuals with gallstones 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

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.

Even though 10-15% of Americans have gallstones, the vast majority of them will never have symptoms (asymptomatic).


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 Healthcare Provider

If you have any symptoms of gallstones, see your healthcare provider. 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

Gallstones Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Man

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes gallstones?

    Gallstones are caused by excess cholesterol and bilirubin in your bile, having too few bile salts to break down cholesterol, or a malfunction in which the gallbladder does not properly empty its bile.

  • What relieves gallbladder attack symptoms?

    Over-the-counter pain relievers can be used to ease pain symptoms caused by gallstones. However, repeat attacks may be treated best with gallbladder removal. There are also other therapies available that do not involve surgery, including medication that dissolves gallstones and shockwave therapy that helps break apart gallstones.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Stinton LM, Shaffer EA. Epidemiology of gallbladder disease: cholelithiasis and cancerGut Liver. 2012;6(2):172–187. doi:10.5009/gnl.2012.6.2.172

  2. Njeze GE. GallstonesNiger J Surg. 2013;19(2):49–55. doi:10.4103/1117-6806.119236

  3. Johnson CD. ABC of the upper gastrointestinal tract. Upper abdominal pain: Gall bladderBMJ. 2001;323(7322):1170–1173. doi:10.1136/bmj.323.7322.1170

  4. Baiu I, Hawn MT. Gallstones and Biliary Colic. JAMA. 2018;320(15):1612. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.11868

  5. Complications of gallstones.

  6. Vitale GC. Early management of acute gallstone pancreatitisAnn Surg. 2007;245(1):18–19. doi:10.1097/01.sla.0000250967.32581.c9

  7. Recio-Boiles A, Waheed A, Babiker HM. Cancer, Gallbladder. StatPearls Publishing.

  8. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms & causes of gallstones.

Additional Reading
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. Gallstones . Mayo Clinic. 

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

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

By Tracee Cornforth
Tracee Cornforth is a freelance writer who covers menstruation, menstrual disorders, and other women's health issues.