Gallstones. Symptoms And Treatment

Gallstones, or cholelithiasis, are clumps of solid material that form in the gallbladder. These clumps are usually crystals of cholesterol. The gallbladder’s main role is to store the bile needed to break down dietary fats. Roughly 10% of American adults, 20% over 65 years old, have gallstones.

In this article, we’ll explore the symptoms and treatment of gallstones. Plus, how you can get rid of them without surgery.

gallstones - four extracted gallstones on mesh cloth

Gallstones and Related Conditions

Most of the time, people with gallstones do not experience symptoms. They will simply sit in the gallbladder. However, sometimes the stones pass in the bile ducts. This condition is choledocholithiasis and can block the bile duct in some cases.

A gallstone’s size varies but ranges from a few millimeters to five centimeters in diameter. An individual may have one or many stones. Bacterial infections can occur if the stones impair the bile flow or completely block it.

Gallbladder sludge is when solid materials like cholesterol, calcium, molecules, or bilirubin form smaller clumps, but don’t form stones. This condition usually resolves on its own or can progress to gallstones.

gallstones - woman clutching her stomach in pain

Gallstone Symptoms: What Are the Warning Signs?

Since these masses are small and sit in the gallbladder, 80% of individuals do not have symptoms. Medical professionals refer to this as silent gallstones.

Symptoms usually develop when the gallstones get stuck in the duct and block the bile flow. Individuals will experience sudden, intense pain in the upper right or center/upper part of the abdomen. The pain may irradiate to the right shoulder blade. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and light-colored stool are additional symptoms.

Doctors refer to this intense pain as biliary colic. The initial pain intensifies between 15 minutes and an hour. It can continue for the rest of the day, though. It then resolves, leaving a dull and aching feeling in the abdomen. Biliary colic resolves on its own but may return in up to 20-40% of people or cause complications. It is usually a large fatty meal that triggers this painful episode.

There are no warning signs of gallstones. However, there are risk factors for developing the condition. One of the most common triggers is a big meal that contains a lot of fat. Some people may notice increased sensitivity and abdominal discomfort when eating this type of meal.

If gallstones continue to block the bile flow, a bacterial infection can develop. Typically, if an individual has a fever, it suggests there’s an infection. A common complication of gallstones is acute cholangitis. Symptoms include fever, jaundice, chills, and abdominal pain.

Bacteria can further spread to the rest of the body causing sepsis or a collection of pus (abscesses) in the liver. Gallstones that block the pancreatic duct can also lead to pancreatitis. Some can reach the intestines and cause a blockage as well.

gallstones - hospital room

How to Treat Gallstones

Gallstones that do not cause symptoms do not need treatment. However, if symptoms do appear, there are ways to manage them.


In cases with episodes of biliary colic, individuals may need surgery. These episodes can be debilitating and cause complications. The surgery, cholecystectomy, removes the gallbladder through laparoscopic surgery. In some cases, patients may need more invasive laparotomy or open abdominal surgery.

Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)

When gallstones are stuck in the bile ducts, doctors can remove them with an ERCP procedure. Many individuals who have ERCP eventually have their gallbladder removed.
Complications of an ERCP include:

  • Bleeding
  • Infection
  • Scars
  • Inflammation of the pancreas

Medical Drugs

Sometimes, drugs can dissolve gallstones if there are too many risks with surgery. One drug used is ursodeoxycholic acid. However, drug therapy takes time. It can take up to half a year to dissolve tiny gallstones and two years or larger ones. In some cases, they do not dissolve at all.

Furthermore, gallstones tend to develop again within five years. Individuals can use ursodeoxycholic acid to prevent them from forming though. Doctors recommend this when a patient is losing a lot of weight through diet or bariatric surgery.

gallstones - acupuncture

Can Gallstones Go Away Without Surgery?

It is possible to get rid of gallstones without surgery. One study found a mixture of plant terpenes (Rowachol) shows success in dissolving radiolucent gallstones.

Another option is a “gallbladder flush.” Some researchers consider it a folk remedy with minimal scientific evidence to support its efficacy. However, anecdotal reports suggest it may help. According to Dr. Sandra Cabot, MD, a liver/gallbladder flush provides a quick way to flush toxins, sludge, and small gallstones. It’s becoming more popular in the U.S. and Russia. It can cause unpleasant reactions like abdominal pain and diarrhea, though.

Milk thistle and artichoke have documented benefits for the liver, gallbladder, and digestion. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence that it dissolves them.

Some studies found that acupuncture may help improve digestive function. One study involving participants with gallstones found acupuncture was beneficial. It reduced symptoms and the volume of the gallbladder.

If seeking alternative therapies to get rid of these stones, contact a professional for advice.

Preventing Gallstones Through Diet

Diet is another very important factor when it comes to gallstones. Research shows nutritional intervention can be effective in preventing gallbladder and kidney stones.

Those who follow a Western-type diet are at risk of developing gallstones. A diet that is prone to the condition looks something like this:

  • Refined sugars
  • Saturated fat
  • Iron deficiency
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Lack of fiber
  • Lack of Vitamin C
  • No legumes

So, what can you do to prevent gallstones through your diet? Make sure to include the following in your nutrition:

  • Omega 3 fatty acids
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Fiber-rich foods
  • Dairy products
  • Nuts
  • Coffee

Also, be sure to exercise regularly and moderate your alcohol consumption. You may also want to consider taking Vitamin C supplements.