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What does it feel like to have gallstones?

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How it feelsDoctor or ER?Pain managementGallbladder function and removalPreventionSummary
Gallstone pain can differ from person to person, but it is often an intense abdominal pain that can last from a few minutes to hours. It may feel sharp and stabbing, but it may also feel dull and constant.
Medically reviewed by Saurabh Sethi, M.D., MPH
Updated on

Gallstones, also known as cholelithiasis, are hard deposits of digestive fluids that can form in your gallbladder — a small organ in your upper right abdomen.

Often, gallstones don’t cause any symptoms and don’t need treatment. Occasionally, they can cause pain, which can be severe. Gallstones can also sometimes lead to complications that require treatment. This may involve surgery to remove the gallbladder. 

How does gallstone pain feel?

Close up of a doctor pressing someone abdomen possibly discussing what gall stones feel like
Photography by Kar-Tr/Getty Images

A 2023 article outlines some key aspects of gallstone pain that you can look out for:

  • Location: The pain typically occurs in the upper right portion of the abdomen, under your ribs. It can also spread to your back or shoulder.
  • Intensity: The pain can be intense and sharp or dull and constant. 
  • Duration: Gallstone pain may last from minutes to hours.
  • Timing: Sometimes, the pain occurs within an hour after eating a fatty meal. It’s also more common at nighttime. 

Beyond the distinctive pain, clinical guidelines from 2016 explain that people with gallstones may also experience:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • excessive sweating
  • indigestion and heartburn
  • bloating and flatulence

When to contact a doctor and when to visit the ER for gallstone pain

Considering how intense gallstone pain can be, it makes sense that you may be unsure if it warrants a visit to a doctor or the emergency room (ER).

When to contact a doctor

If you experience gallstone pain regularly but can manage the pain at home with over-the-counter (OTC) medications, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a primary care or family doctor. 

They can guide you on lifestyle adaptations that may prevent future gallstone pain. They can also help rule out any other conditions that might cause similar symptoms. 

Nonemergency conditions that can lead to similar symptoms include irritable bowel syndrome and gastroesophageal reflux disease. Rarely, more severe health conditions can be the cause, like hepatitis or gallbladder cancer.

When to go to the ER

Seek immediate medical care at an urgent care facility or the ER if you experience:

  • severe abdominal pain that you cannot manage at home 
  • yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • fever 
  • pain that lasts more than 5 hours

These symptoms can indicate that the gallstones have led to complications or that something else is causing the pain.

One possible complication is a rare condition called gallstone ileus, a type of bowel obstruction. It can occur if a gallstone passes through the bile duct and becomes stuck in the gastrointestinal tract. 

Another potential complication is acute cholecystitis. This is when gallstones block the cystic duct of your gallbladder. Cholecystitis happens in around 10% of gallstone cases and may require surgery to remove the gallbladder.

Pain management for gallstones

You can often manage gallstone pain with OTC pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like:

For more severe pain, a doctor or healthcare professional may suggest short-term prescription medications like opioids. Specifically, the guidelines suggest buprenorphine (Butrans), but a healthcare team can advise on the best options for your specific symptoms.

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About the gallbladder and removal

The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ in the upper right part of your abdomen, by the liver.

The gallbladder stores bile from the liver and releases it to your intestines to help with digestion when you eat. Fatty foods especially trigger bile release. 

Bile is composed of many substances, including:

  • water
  • electrolytes
  • bile salts
  • cholesterol, a type of fat
  • amino acids, the building blocks of proteins
  • bilirubin, a yellow breakdown product from red blood cells
  • vitamins

You can live a healthy life without your gallbladder as your liver continues to produce bile. Research from 2021 notes that the removal of the gallbladder — called a cholecystectomy — is the most common gastrointestinal surgery in the world. 

Healthcare professionals may recommend removing your gallbladder if: 

  • you have severe pain
  • your gallstone pains are recurrent or frequent
  • you experience complications like cholecystitis

That said, a 2022 research review that included 12 studies found that more research is necessary to better understand when alternative treatments may be more suitable than surgical removal. Alternatives include:

  • a medication called ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA)
  • ultrasound shock waves (lithotripsy)
  • waiting for the stone to pass

In these circumstances, an ER doctor will typically recommend the best treatment option for you.

Preventing gallstones

Certain lifestyle modifications can help prevent gallstones:

  • Maintaining a moderate weight: A higher body mass index is linked with a higher risk of gallstones. If you live with obesity, losing weight can help reduce the risk.
  • Getting regular physical activity if possible: If you have a sedentary job, like a desk job, exercising 1 hour per day reduces your gallstone risk by 70%. Exercising for 30 minutes per day if you have a standing job or a more active manual job has the same results.
  • Considering medications during rapid weight loss: Losing weight quickly also increases gallstone risk. For example, this can occur after weight loss surgery or when using weight loss medication. To prevent this, you can discuss the preventive use of drugs like UDCA with a doctor. 
  • Eating more whole foods: Your diet may also play a role, though research is still unclear on the specifics. Guidelines suggest eating more fruit, vegetables, nuts, vitamin C, coffee, tea, fiber, and calcium.

You can speak with a healthcare professional to learn more about lifestyle modifications and gallstones. This can be a family or primary care doctor, a registered dietitian, or a doctor specializing in health conditions affecting your digestive system, called a gastroenterologist.


The gallbladder is in the upper right of your abdomen, and gallstone pain can feel sharp and stabbing, or dull and constant. It may sometimes radiate to your back or shoulder. It generally lasts from a few minutes to a few hours and may be more likely to occur after eating a fatty meal.

If you experience recurrent gallstone pain, it’s a good idea to speak with a doctor to rule out other causes of discomfort. They can also suggest treatment options and lifestyle modifications to prevent future gallstones. 

You should seek emergency medical attention if you develop a fever, your skin becomes yellow, the pain lasts more than 5 hours, or you cannot manage the pain at home with OTC pain relievers.

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