What is a gallstone?


A gallstone is a small stone in your gallbladder, a digestive organ, says Keith Chisholm, MD, from Medical Center of Trinity. Learn what they're made of in this video.

Gallstones are small, pebble-like substances that develop when bile—composed of water, cholesterol, fats, bile salts, proteins and waste—stored in the gallbladder hardens into pieces of stone-like material. Gallstones are relatively common; approximately 10 percent of people older than 40 have gallstones. But most patients will never develop symptoms. “If gallstones are discovered without symptoms, there is a good chance that the gallbladder will not need to be removed,” says UCLA internist Peter Lefevre, MD.

A gallstone is a stone that forms in the gallbladder when bile gets trapped at the opening to the intestines. The bile hardens and forms stones, referred to as gallstones. When the stones try to pass into the intestines, they can cause pain. But if they’re small and unobstructive, they usually don’t cause much discomfort. Many people with gallstones don’t have any symptoms.

Gallstones can inflame the gallbladder and result in infection. An inflamed gallbladder, or cholecystitis, can also cause pain. A “gallbladder attack” is used to describe this severe pain that can be debilitating and necessitate a visit to the emergency room.

When a person experiences an extremely painful attack, has regular pain or other uncomfortable symptoms interfere with daily life, removing the gallbladder is the most often prescribed treatment.

Dr. Michael T. Murray, ND
Naturopathic Medicine Specialist

Gallstones are round or oval, smooth or faceted lumps of solid matter found in the gallbladder, the sac under the liver where bile is stored and concentrated. They arise when there is an imbalance among the bile components. Bile is composed of bile salts; bilirubin; cholesterol, phospholipids and fatty acids; water; electrolytes; and other substances. The most common stones are mixed, containing cholesterol and inorganic salts of calcium.

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Dr. Audrey K. Chun, MD
Geriatric Medicine Specialist

Gallstones are solid deposits of cholesterol or calcium salts within the gallbladder that form from the bile produced by your liver. While they can be present without causing any symptoms, they are also associated with bouts of nausea, vomiting and intermittent sharp pain in the upper middle or upper right abdomen (sometimes under the right rib cage). The pain may shift to the back or right shoulder blade and may be brought on by foods high in fat.

Gallstones also can become trapped in the neck of the gallbladder, which results in persistent pain and fever, especially if the gallbladder becomes infected (pain that lasts longer than just a few hours is a red flag for infection). Rarely, gallstones can get out of the gallbladder and enter and block the bile dua (which leads from the liver to the small intestine), causing more severe abdominal pain and possibly jaundice (a yellow tinge to the skin and the whites of the eyes), or block the duct leading to the pancreas, causing a condition called pancreatitis.

Gallstones form when substances in bile harden. Your gallbladder is a small organ located in the upper right abdomen, close to your liver. It stores a digestive fluid called bile, which flows into your small intestine. Bile helps your body digest fats. Gallstones may stay in the gallbladder, or may move into the bile ducts; either way they can cause pain in your upper abdomen that may last up to 12 hours, and may lead to complications such as infection.

Gallstones form when bile, stored in the gallbladder, hardens, becoming stone-like. A slowing of gallbladder emptying and an excessive amount of cholesterol, bilirubin (bile pigment) or bile salts in the bloodstream may result in gallstones. There are two types of gallstones: cholesterol stones, which comprise about 80 percent of all gallstones, and pigment stones.

Gallstones are a risk factor for gallbladder cancer and cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer), which are rare but are increasing in frequency. This increase may be due to a rise in obesity rates, a risk factor for gallstones. If a gallstone obstructs a bile duct, it can lead to a life-threatening infection of the bile ducts, liver, or pancreas.

Gallstones are small crystal masses that are formed in the gallbladder. Learn more about gallstones in this video with Rick Kline, MD, Trauma Medical Director at Regional Medical Center of San Jose.

Gallstones are hard, pebble-like deposits that form in the gallbladder, the small organ that sits at the base of your liver. About 20 million people, or 10 percent of Americans, develop gallstones. Gallstones result when certain components of bile, a fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, precipitate out and form a solid, resulting in a gallstone.

Bile contains several different ingredients including cholesterol, water, pigments, lecithin and salts (electrolytes) including calcium. About 75 percent of gallstones are made of cholesterol. The other 25 percent of gallstones are made of bile pigment also known as bilirubin. Pigmented stones usually appear as black or brown, and they often occur in people who have problems with their blood, such as certain types of anemia.

Continue Learning about Gallstones


Your gallbladder contains digestive fluids that help you process foods that you eat. When these fluids harden they are call gallstones. Gallstones range in size from smaller than a grain of sand to golf ball size. Gallstones might ...

not cause any symptoms. If you experience sudden pain in the upper right part of your abdomen or in the center of your abdomen, pain in your right shoulder or back pain between your shoulders, you may have gallstones that need medical attention.

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.