What Is a Gallstone?

Gallstones are associated with bile, green-yellow fluid stored in your gallbladder. A gallstone forms when bile solidifies into a stone-like material.

The gallbladder serves as the reservoir for bile, which is produced in your liver and flows into your gallbladder. It stays there until your body needs it to digest food.

Excessive amounts of bile salts, cholesterol or bile pigment called bilirubin can cause a gallstone to form.

These terms describe the location and types of gallstones:

  • Cholelithiasis: Gallstones located in your gallbladder
  • Choledocholithiasis: Gallstones located in your bile ducts

You may not have gallstone symptoms or signs. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, if you have a gallstone blockage, you might experience the following:

  • Sudden and quickly intensifying pain in the upper right section of your abdomen
  • Sudden and quickly intensifying pain just below your breastbone in the center of your abdomen
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Pain in your right shoulder
  • Back pain between your shoulder blades

The pain from gallstones might last a few minutes to several hours.

If you have gallstones obstructing your bile ducts, this can lead to a severe or life-threatening infection of the bile ducts, liver or pancreas. Cancer or trauma also can obstruct bile ducts, but this is unrelated to gallstones.

Check with your doctor if you believe you have gallstones.

Causes of Gallstones

The causes of gallstones are unclear, but according to the Mayo Clinic, physicians believe gallstones may occur under the following conditions:

  • Your bile has too much cholesterol
  • Your bile has too much bilirubin, a chemical produced when your body breaks down red blood cells
  • Your gallbladder is emptying incorrectly

A cholesterol stone is the most common type of gallstone. It can form when bile contains too much cholesterol, not enough bile salts or too much bilirubin. Or, it can form when your gallbladder does not properly empty.

Pigment stones typically develop in people who have biliary tract infections, cirrhosis and hereditary blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia. With these types of stones, the causes are uncertain.

For gallstones, avoid foods that are high in fat, high in cholesterol or low in fiber. However, changing your diet or avoiding certain foods will not necessarily prevent gallstones or dissolve them.

According to the Harvard Medical School, if you want to eliminate gallstones without surgery, here are some options for passing gallstones:

  • Take Ursodiol (common brands are Actigall and Urso), which is a naturally occurring bile acid that helps dissolve cholesterol stones.
  • Combine drug therapy with lithotripsy. Lithotripsy uses external sound waves to break your gallstones into small pieces that can easily dissolve or be passed through your bile duct.

Please note that medical management with medication is mostly reserved for people who cannot have surgery. This option should be carefully discussed with your physician.

It also important to know that after medical treatment, you might have a recurrence of the gallstones. Check with your doctor about treatment for gallstones.

Treating Gallstones

Your health care provider will assist you in diagnosing and treating your gallstones. Gallbladder stone treatment is based on:

  • The extent of your condition
  • Your age, medical history and overall health
  • Your tolerance of specific procedures, therapies or medicines
  • Your expectations for the course of your condition
  • Your preference or opinion

If your gallstones are causing no symptoms, treatment such as gallstone surgery is usually not necessary. But if your pain persists, your health care provider may recommend the following treatments:

  • Gallbladder removal (cholecystectomy)
  • Oral dissolution therapy
  • Methyl tert-butyl ether
  • Extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy (ESWL)
  • Contact dissolution therapy

Discuss these treatment options with your physician.

Please note that medical management with medication is mostly reserved for people who cannot have surgery. This option should be carefully discussed with your physician.

For more information, please visit

Laparoscopic Surgery for Gallstones

If you are experiencing pain or other problems because of gallstones, you may need gallstone removal surgery also known as gallbladder stone removal surgery. Laparoscopic gallbladder surgery removes your gallbladder using a laparoscope. This is a small, lighted tube that allows the surgeon to look inside your body.

Discuss this treatment option with your physician.

For more information, please visit

Dr. Richard Rodriguez Discusses Gallstones - BayCare Health System
Dr. Richard Rodriguez, a general surgeon at BayCare Surgery Centers, defines the function of the gallbladder and how it works, while explaining what gallstones are and how they are formed. Visit for more information.