What You Should Know About Gallstones

If you suffer from gallstones, you are not alone. An estimated 20 million Americans have the condition, although many people are unaware they have gallstones because they have no symptoms, also called "silent stones." Gallstones are small, hardened deposits of digestive fluid called bile that can develop in the gallbladder, a small pear-shaped sac located below the liver in the right upper abdomen and can range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball.  When gallstones lodge in a duct and cause a blockage, you may experience symptoms over diverse parts of your body, including rapidly intensifying pain in the upper right portion of your stomach; rapidly intensifying pain in the center of your stomach, just below the breastbone; back pain between your shoulder blades; and pain in your right shoulder.

Although the reasons gallstones develop aren't clear, there are some known factors that increase the risk for the condition, including:

  • Being female. Especially women who are pregnant, use hormone replacement therapy or take birth control pills
  • Being age 60 or older
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Eating a high-fat diet
  • Having diabetes
  • Taking cholesterol-lowering drugs

When to See Your Doctor

Usually the pain from gallstones subsides as the gallstones move, but if a blockage in the bile ducts remains, your gallbladder can become infected and rupture. Seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Prolonged pain lasting longer than five hours
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever or chills
  • A yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes
  • Clay-colored stools

If your doctor suspects you have gallstones, she is likely to do an ultrasound exam or a computerized tomography (CT) scan or a blood test to look for signs of infection, obstruction, pancreatitis or jaundice.


If you have "silent stones," treatment isn't necessary, but if you're having frequent gallbladder attacks, your doctor may recommend that you have your gallbladder-a nonessential organ-removed. The operation is called a cholecystectomy and is one of the most common surgeries performed on adults in the U.S.


You can reduce your chances of developing gallstones if you:

  • Stick to usual meal times and don't skip meals
  • Exercise most days of the week
  • Lose weight slowly-one to two pounds a week
  • Maintain a healthy weight