Gallstones: Signs & Symptoms

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over the various signs and symptoms of gallstones. You'll learn whether or not all cases of gallstones cause signs and symptoms and which signs may indicate a severe problem.


The next time you eat something a bit fatty, like pizza, you can thank the gallbladder for helping you digest and absorb the fat in the pizza. This is because the gallbladder is a balloon-like structure that stores and secretes bile. Bile is a fluid produced by the liver that helps to digest and absorb fat.

The gallbladder may be the site of gallstone formation. Gallstones are concretions of various substances, commonly cholesterol. Do these gallstones cause any signs or symptoms? Let's find out if they do and what those signs and symptoms may be.


Asymptomatic Gallstones

Believe it or not, gallstones can be present in a person's gallbladder for numerous decades without causing any signs or symptoms! In fact, these gallstones are sometimes discovered incidentally. In other words, while the doctor was actually trying to diagnose another problem, they all of a sudden found the gallstones by accident. Neither the patient nor doctor knew they were there, to begin with.

The good thing is that most cases of asymptomatic gallstones don't require treatment. In fact, people sometimes erroneously believe that these gallstones are the cause of their other problems, like diarrhea, heartburn or bloating when the real culprit is another disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome or GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease. In cases of asymptomatic gallstones, their removal will be of little to no help in relieving the symptoms associated with these other disease processes.

The bad news is that the chances of developing actual signs and symptoms stemming from the gallstones themselves increase by 1%-2% per year if they aren't removed. That's just something to keep in mind.

Symptomatic Gallstones

And this brings us to symptomatic cases of gallstones! When they do cause a problem, what signs and symptoms can a person expect?

Let's start with something you're probably not going to be shocked about; pain. The pain, often dull in nature, is sudden in appearance and can rapidly intensify. It commonly appears within an hour after eating, but what else? A fatty meal.

The pain appears in the upper right part of a person's abdomen or right below the breastbone. The pain might radiate out and appear to be actually coming from the right shoulder or even between the shoulder blades. The pain usually resolves in 30-90 minutes but can last for many hours in other cases.

Importantly, this type of pain will not be relieved by changes in a person's position, by vomiting, or with the use of antacids.

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