Gallstone Symptoms & Warning Signs

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 18, 2024
4 min read

Gallstones may or may not cause symptoms. In fact, you likely won't know you have them until one gets stuck in one of your ducts, which are the tubes that carry your digestive juices to your liver, gallbladder, and small intestine.

When you get a blockage in one of your ducts, you might have the following symptoms:

  • Sudden pain in your belly that may extend to your upper back. This pain may be in the center or upper right part of your belly. It may also get bad very fast.
  • Pain in your back between your shoulder blades
  • Pain in your right shoulder
  • Fever or chills
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Jaundice (yellowing of your skin or eyes)
  • Dark pee and pale poop

What is gallstone pain like?

When a gallstone temporarily blocks the duct that leads to your stomach, it can cause bile to back up into your gallbladder. This can cause your gallbladder to spasm, which then leads to a sharp pain in the center of your belly or under your rib cage on the right side of your belly. This is called biliary colic because the pain can build and then fade slowly as the gallstones block and unblock your ducts.

The pain can be so bad, it takes your breath away, makes you feel nauseated, or makes it hard for you to sit still. Some people describe the pain as being intense, sharp, stabbing, cramping, or squeezing. Some people may think they're having a heart attack because the pain can start in the middle of your belly or chest and radiate to your shoulder or upper back. Biliary colic may be more likely after you eat a really fatty meal. This is because your gallbladder needs to squeeze hard to release enough of its stored bile to help you digest fatty food.

People who are assigned female at birth (AFAB) and those who are assigned male at birth (AMAB) have the same types of symptoms with gallstones. However, people who are AFAB may be more likely to have something called referred pain, which you feel in a different place than where the pain starts. For instance, with gallstones, you may feel pain in your back or shoulder instead of your belly.

People who are AFAB may also be less likely to see their doctor for pain (such as gallbladder pain) that comes and goes.

It's important for you to go see your doctor if you have bad pain or pain that keeps coming back, even if you have no pain in between episodes. You're more likely to have gallbladder pain again if you've had it once.

Call your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • You have sudden, stabbing pain in your upper right belly or shoulder, especially after you eat
  • Belly pain that is so intense you can't get comfortable or sit still
  • You have a fever or chills
  • You have dark pee and/or pale poop
  • Your skin or eyes turn yellow

You may not know you have gallstones until you get biliary colic, which is when a gallstone blocks one of your ducts. This can cause sudden and intense pain in your upper, right belly. The pain may be so bad that it makes you feel sick to your stomach. This pain may get intense over a couple of hours, then peak and fade. Unfortunately, you're likely to get another gallbladder attack if you've already had one, so go see a doctor even if the pain goes away.

Gallstones often don't cause symptoms. You may not know you have them until one gets stuck in one of your ducts. When a gallstone gets stuck in one of your ducts, it can cause intense pain in your upper right belly. This pain can build and then fade and is called biliary colic. This is one of the warning signs of gallstones, and you should go see your doctor if you have an attack of biliary colic. Gallstones won't go away on their own. You're more likely to have another episode of pain once you've had it.