Symptoms of Gallbladder Disease and Gallstones

Gallbladder Disease is More Likely to Affect Women

Doctor testing stomach of young woman
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Gall bladder disease refers to a variety of conditions that affect your gallbladder. The most common one is the formation of gallstones, which can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. Gallstones made of cholesterol are the most common and not linked to blood cholesterol levels. Pigment gallstones, made of bilirubin, are the second most common type.

The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ about 3 to 4 inches long that helps your body digest fats.

The liver produces bile and then stores it in the gallbladder. When you eat fats, your body releases a hormone that signals the gallbladder to squirt bile into the intestine to aid in digestion.

Women Are At Greater Risk

Women are almost twice as likely as men to develop gallstones during their fertile years. This is because the estrogen that naturally occurs in the female body increases the incidence of gallstones.

Oral contraceptives and estrogen replacement therapy further increase your risk of gallbladder disease.

Pregnancy also increases your risk, especially if you were obese before you got pregnant.

Asymptomatic Gallstones

You can have no symptoms -- be asymptomatic -- and still have gallstones. In fact, about 10 to 20 percent of Americans have gallstones and the vast majority of them, about 80 percent, will never have symptoms. These are known as clinically silent gallstones. Up to 10 percent of people with this silent condition progress to a symptomatic condition.

Symptoms of a Gallbladder Attack

The most common cause of a gallbladder attack is a gallstone blocking a pathway in that organ. Be aware that pain due to this health condition may occur in other areas of your body. Symptoms of an impending or occurring attack include:

  • steady, severe pain in the upper abdomen that increases rapidly and lasts from 30 minutes to several hours
  • pain in the back between the shoulder blades and/or under the right shoulder
  • nausea or vomiting
  • abdominal bloating
  • recurring intolerance of fatty foods or pain after eating

Cholesterol Gallbladder Stone Prevention

In order to prevent cholesterol gallbladder stones, you must reduce your risk factors. Some of the risk factors are under your control, but others are not.

You may be less likely to develop gallstones if you consume the following regularly:

  • unsaturated fats
  • coffee
  • fiber

You are more likely to develop gallstones if you:

Uncontrollable risk factors for cholesterol gallstones include:

  • the naturally occurring premenopausal estrogen levels in your body 
  • getting older
  • a family history or genetic predisposition may place you at five times greater risk
  • ethnicity -- with Native Americans, indigenous peoples, at the greatest risk

What Are the Treatments for Gallbladder Disease?

Visit our Health Treatments Guide Index for more information about Gallbladder Disease and other women's health conditions.

More About Gallbladder Disease


Harvard Health Publications: What to do About Gallstones (2005).

National Institutes of Health Medline Plus: Gallbladder Diseases

Stinton and Shaffer. Gut and Liver: Epidemiology of Gallbladder Disease - Cholelithiasis and Cancer (2012).

University of Maryland Medical Center: Gallbladder Disease (2014).