Gallstones are small, hard, fatty lumps in your gallbladder which can sometimes be extremely painful.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What are gallstones?

Your gallbladder is part of your digestive system. It stores and releases a liquid called bile which your liver produces to help break down fats. Sometimes bile can react with fatty substances and harden to create small stones in your gallbladder called gallstones.

Gallstones are very common, with one in three women and one in five men having gallstones at some point. In most cases, they are symptomless and treatment isn’t needed – most people don’t even know they have them.

However, sometimes a gallstone becomes trapped in a bile duct, causing sudden, severe pain in your upper abdomen. This is gallstone disease and the gallstone pain is called biliary colic.

You may only have biliary colic once, with the troublesome gallstone passing naturally from your body. Or, it may happen every now and again – perhaps after eating greasy or fatty food.

Painful gallstone disease is often successfully treated with surgery.

How to tell if you have gallstones

Gallstones are mostly symptomless and won’t cause you any problems. However, a trapped gallstone may trigger an episode of biliary colic. You’ll notice a sudden, severe pain, just below the rib, with the right-hand side most painful. It can last from a few minutes to several hours.

Occasionally, gallstones lead to complications which need urgent medical advice. This can include inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis), which can cause:

Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) is another complication of gallstones.

If your gallstone pain lasts longer than eight hours, contact your GP immediately. If you’re having regular episodes of gallstone pain, make an appointment to see your GP.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Diagnosis and tests for gallstones

Your GP will examine your abdomen in case your gallbladder is inflamed and may do blood tests to check for jaundice.

To check for gallstones in your gallbladder, your GP may refer you for an ultrasound scan. If this doesn’t show gallstones, you may need an MRI scan, CT scan or a cholangiography – a special X-ray to check your gallbladder.

Causes of gallstones

It’s unclear why gallstones form, but may be due to an imbalance of the chemicals in your bile. This can cause small crystals to develop which slowly grow into gallstones.

Gallstones are more common once you’re over 40, with women three times more likely to have gallstones than men.

You’re also at a higher risk of developing gallstones if you:

  • Are overweight
  • Have diabetes
  • Take certain prescribed medications, including the contraceptive pill
  • Have a close relative with gallstones

Common treatments for gallstones

If your gallstones aren’t causing you any issues, then you may not need treatment. You can try avoiding foods and drinks that you know have triggered symptoms in the past.

If your gallstones symptoms are very painful or there are complications, your doctor may recommend gallbladder removal. This procedure has a high success rate with a low risk of complications. It's usually done via keyhole surgery, but in some cases it may be open surgery.

Losing your gallbladder won’t affect your daily life and you won’t have to avoid any foods or drinks as your liver will still make bile.