Treatment for Gallstones: Symptoms, Causes, Risks, and Options

Treatment for Gallstones

Treatment for gallstones usually depends on the severity of the symptoms and the overall health of the patient. Gallstones can be a painful and frustrating condition that affects millions of people worldwide.

With the right knowledge, understanding, and treatment for gallstones options, you can take control of your gallbladder health and prevent the discomfort and complications caused by gallstones.

In this comprehensive blog post, we will explore everything you need to know about gallstone disease, from understanding the causes and symptoms to various treatment options and preventative measures.

Key Takeaways

  • Gallstones are caused by obesity, elevated cholesterol, and estrogen levels, slow gallbladder emptying, and being female.
  • Diagnosis involves various tests such as blood tests, ultrasounds, etc. Treatment may involve medications or surgery to remove the gallbladder.
  • Prevention of Gallstones can be achieved through a healthy diet and exercise routine.

Understanding Gallstones

A person suffering from biliary colic pain due to gallstones in the small intestine

Gallstones are small, solid formations that develop in the gallbladder as a result of imbalances in bile composition, typically caused by elevated cholesterol levels or metabolic conditions.

They can lead to a gallbladder attack, which is characterized by severe abdominal pain, also known as biliary colic. The gallbladder is a small organ located beneath the liver, which stores bile produced by the liver and releases it into the small intestine to help digest food. Therefore, gallstones can significantly impact the gallbladder and bile systems, as well as the overall digestive system.

The primary cause of gallstones is an abundance of cholesterol in the blood, which can lead to chemical disparities in bile and, ultimately, gallstone formation. Gallstones can cause acute cholecystitis, an inflammation of the gallbladder, that can result in severe pain and discomfort.

To prevent gallstones, adhere to a nutritious diet, minimize your intake of fatty foods, and incorporate regular physical activity into your routine.

Symptoms and Warning Signs

A person suffering from abdominal pain due to gallbladder disease

Gallstones can often go unnoticed, with no symptoms presenting themselves. However, when symptomatic gallstones occur, the primary symptom is pain in the digestive system, typically located in the right upper or middle abdomen, just below the rib cage.

This pain can intensify within an hour and can last up to several hours, manifesting as either a sharp, knifelike sensation or a deep ache. In some cases, the pain may radiate to the back or the right shoulder, accompanied by nausea and vomiting.

If you experience persistent abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and excessive sweating, these could be signs of acute inflammation caused by gallstones.

To diagnose severe abdominal pain, seeking immediate medical advice is recommended, as prompt detection and treatment can ward off complications and ease symptoms. In severe and frequent cases, surgical removal of the gallbladder may be advised.

Causes and Risk Factors

A person undergoing weight loss surgery to reduce the risk of developing gallstones

Apart from the imbalance in the chemical composition of bile, several risk factors can increase the likelihood of gallstone formation. These risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Elevated cholesterol levels
  • Elevated estrogen levels
  • Slow gallbladder emptying

Women are more predisposed to the condition.

Obesity can increase the risk of gallstones, as bodies with a greater amount of fat generate more estrogen. Rapid weight loss can lead to an increased risk for a person’s health. Very low-calorie diets can interfere with the production of bile, which in turn can cause cholesterol to crystallize..

The increase in cholesterol in the bile due to estrogen, combined with progesterone’s effect of slowing the emptying of the gallbladder, may account for why the risk for women decreases with age relative to men.

Diagnosing Gallstones

A person undergoing an ultrasound scan to diagnose gallstones

To diagnose gallstones, healthcare professionals typically utilize a variety of tests, including:

  • Blood tests
  • Ultrasound scans
  • MRI scans
  • Cholangiography
  • CT scans

Doctors generally use an ultrasound scan to confirm gallstones. They perform this painless procedure by using a small handheld device called a transducer to emit high-frequency sound waves through the skin and into the body, which generates an image on a monitor.

When diagnosing gallstones, the following tests may be conducted:

  • CT scan: to assess any potential complications associated with gallstones, such as acute pancreatitis
  • MRI scan: to observe gallstones in the bile ducts
  • Cholangiography: a procedure that uses a dye to demonstrate any abnormality in the bile or pancreatic systems on X-ray images

These tests are used during the diagnostic process.

In some cases, Murphy’s sign test, which involves placing a hand or fingers on the upper-right area of the abdomen and asking the patient to inhale, may be performed to identify inflammation of the gallbladder.

Non-Surgical Treatments for Gallstones

A person taking medications to dissolve gallstones

When considering non-surgical treatments for gallstones, medications such as ursodiol, extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL), and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) are some of the options available.

These treatments aim to dissolve or break down small cholesterol stones and remove them from the bile duct without the need for invasive surgery.


An image of a bottle of Ursodiol, a common treatment for gallstones

Ursodiol (ursodeoxycholic acid) and chenodeoxycholic acid are two medications used to treat gallstones by dissolving small cholesterol stones over a period of months or years.

Doctors use these medications to dissolve gallstones in patients who either choose not to or cannot undergo surgery to remove the gallstones. They act by breaking up small cholesterol stones, enabling them to pass through the bile duct.

Notably, ursodiol may require several months to produce visible results and may not be suitable for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Therefore, seeking medical advice is vital to determine if medication is the right treatment for individual gallstone cases.

Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy (ESWL)

Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) is a non-surgical procedure utilized to break down small gallstones, using sound waves to break up the stones into smaller fragments that can be passed through the bile duct.

This treatment for gallstones is applicable to patients who possess a functioning gallbladder and small stones. The intent of lithotripsy is to fragment gallstones into particles that can be more readily dissolved or are of a size that can be safely passed through the bile duct.

ESWL is a non-invasive procedure that does not require anesthesia, making it an appealing alternative for patients who are not suitable candidates for surgery. Nonetheless, seeking medical advice is necessary to ascertain if ESWL is the most suitable treatment for your individual gallstone condition.

Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) is a procedure utilized to extract gallstones from the bile duct. It necessitates the following steps:

  1. Insertion of a thin tube equipped with a camera into the bile duct to identify and remove the stones.
  2. Widening the bile duct opening by means of a small incision or an electrically heated wire.
  3. Extracting the bile duct stones or allowing them to pass into the intestine and be eliminated from the body.

The ERCP procedure usually takes 30 minutes. However, the duration of the procedure may vary and can be anywhere between 15 minutes to over an hour. After the procedure, you may be required to remain in the hospital for an overnight stay for monitoring purposes.

It’s imperative to seek medical guidance to decide if ERCP is the right treatment for your specific gallstone situation.

Surgical Treatments for Gallstones

A person undergoing laparoscopic cholecystectomy to remove gallstones

For cases where non-surgical treatments are not suitable or effective, surgical treatments such as laparoscopic cholecystectomy and open cholecystectomy are available for gallstones. These surgical options involve the removal of the gallbladder to alleviate symptoms and prevent further complications.

Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy, also known as laparoscopic gallbladder removal, is the most common surgical treatment for gallstones. Surgeons remove the gallbladder by inserting instruments through small incisions in the skin.

This minimally invasive keyhole surgery entails opening the gallbladder, dilating the tract, and extracting any gallstones utilizing a device known as a cholecystoscope. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is a popular choice among patients due to its shorter recovery period compared to open surgery.

However, there is a possibility of inflicting damage to the bile ducts, including the common bile duct, during laparoscopic cholecystectomy. If complications arise or if the patient has an unusual gallbladder, the surgeon may need to perform an open surgery with a larger incision as an alternative.

Before undergoing a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, discussing potential risks and benefits with a medical expert is of utmost importance.

Open Cholecystectomy

Open cholecystectomy is a more invasive surgical option for gallstone removal. It involves the removal of the gallbladder through a 10-15cm incision in the abdomen. While open cholecystectomy is equally efficacious to laparoscopic surgery, it necessitates a longer recovery period and results in more conspicuous scarring.

The recovery period for an open cholecystectomy is usually longer than that for a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, and the scarring is more evident.

Prior to choosing open cholecystectomy, discussing potential risks and benefits with a medical professional is vital. Depending on the patient’s overall health and the specifics of their gallstone condition, laparoscopic cholecystectomy might be a more fitting choice in some instances.

Complications and Consequences of Gallstones

A person suffering from complications of gallstones.

If left untreated, gallstones can lead to various complications and consequences, including gallbladder disease. These complications can include:

  • Inflammation and infection of the gallbladder, which can cause abdominal pain, fever, nausea, and vomiting
  • Jaundice, which results in yellowing of the skin and eyes due to a buildup of bilirubin in the blood
  • Acute cholangitis, a condition characterized by the presence of an infection within the bile ducts, is a matter of concern that warrants attention.
  • Acute pancreatitis, is characterized by the inflammatory response of the pancreas.
  • Gallbladder cancer, which is a rare but serious complication
  • Gallstone ileus, which is a blockage of the small intestine caused by a gallstone

It is important to seek medical attention if you suspect you have gallstones to prevent these complications.

Fever, abdominal pain, and jaundice characterize acute cholangitis, which is a severe infection of the bile duct. Acute pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, manifests as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and fever. In rare cases, gallstones can lead to gallbladder cancer, which presents symptoms similar to those of complicated gallstone disease, and gallstone ileus, which causes bowel obstruction.

These complications can be severe and even life-threatening if not addressed promptly. Therefore, it is imperative to seek immediate medical aid if you suspect gallstones in order to avoid these complications and safeguard your general health.

Preventing Gallstones

A person following a healthy diet to prevent gallstones.

Prevention of gallstones is an essential aspect of maintaining gallbladder health. Here are some tips to help reduce the risk of gallstone formation:

  • Follow a healthy diet that includes ample fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
  • Gradually lose weight if needed, as rapid weight loss can increase the risk of gallstones.
  • Engage in regular exercise to maintain a healthy weight and promote overall health.
  • Avoid processed and sugary foods, as they can contribute to gallstone formation.

By following these guidelines, you can help preserve a healthy gallbladder and reduce the risk of gallstones.

You can achieve gradual weight loss by decreasing calorie consumption and increasing physical activity. Engaging in regular exercise can also play a crucial role in preventing gallstones, as it helps maintain a desirable weight and reduces the likelihood of gallstone formation. Avoiding fatty foods and maintaining a low-fat diet can further diminish the likelihood of gallstone development.

Adherence to these preventative measures helps you take charge of your gallbladder health, lowering the risk of pain and complications linked to gallstones.


In conclusion, gallstones are a common and potentially painful condition that can significantly impact one’s quality of life.

Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for gallstones can empower individuals to take control of their gallbladder health and prevent complications.

By maintaining a healthy diet, losing weight gradually, exercising regularly, and seeking appropriate medical interventions when necessary, individuals can significantly reduce the risk of gallstone formation and live a healthier, more comfortable life.


For more information, guidelines, and consultation on “Treatment for gallstones” or book an appointment with Dr Valeria Simone MD, at Southlake General Surgery, Texas, USA. Please contact our healthcare expert today at +1(817)748-0200.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most common treatment for gallstones?

The most common treatment for gallstones is surgery to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy), which can be done either through a laparoscopic or traditional, open procedure. Other treatments such as endoscopy and nonsurgical treatments may be available depending on the type of gallstone.

Can you get rid of gallstones without surgery?

ESWL is an effective, nonsurgical option for managing gallstones. Alternatively, medications such as ursodiol (Actigall, Urso) can be taken to help dissolve small cholesterol stones. Therefore, it is possible to get rid of gallstones without surgery.

What is the fastest way to relieve gallbladder pain?

The quickest way to relieve gallbladder pain is to apply a warm compress to the affected area and drink peppermint tea or take a magnesium supplement.

What are the primary causes of gallstones?

Gallstones are primarily caused by imbalances in the chemical composition of bile, typically resulting from high cholesterol levels or underlying metabolic conditions.

What are the symptoms of gallstones?

Gallstones can cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, inflammation, and infection of the gallbladder.

Medically Reviewed: Dr. Valeria Simone MD,

Board-certified General Surgeon at Southlake General Surgery, Texas, USA.


  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Gallstones (
  • American Academy of Family Physicians. Management of Gallstones (