Both gallstones and kidney stones can be very painful. Gallstones are deposits of digestive fluid, while kidney stones are crystals formed from chemicals in the urine. Both types of stones may pass. Gallstones may require the removal of the gallbladder.
Gallstones and kidney stones are common health conditions with similar names. Both conditions cause small stones to form and can be very painful.
It can be easy to confuse these two conditions. However, there are significant differences, including the causes, symptoms, and treatment of each.
Gallstones are deposits of digestive fluid that harden in your gallbladder. Some people have one gallstone at a time, while other people might develop several at once. Gallstones form in a range of sizes. Some gallstones are as small as a grain of rice, while others are as large as a golf ball.
It’s not always clear what causes gallstones to form. The most common causes include:
- Abnormal gallbladder emptying: When your gallbladder doesn’t empty often enough or doesn’t empty completely, it can cause your bile to become very concentrated. This can lead to the formation of gallbladder crystals.
- Excessive amounts of cholesterol in bile: If your liver excretes more cholesterol than your bile can dissolve, the excess bile can form crystals. Over time, those crystals can form gallstones.
- Excessive amounts of bilirubin in bile: Your body makes bilirubin when it breaks down red blood cells. Some health conditions cause your liver to make excessive bilirubin. This can lead to gallstone formation.
A kidney stone is formed from chemicals in the urine. When urine doesn’t have enough liquid or when it has too much waste, the chemicals can clump together and form crystals. Unless the kidney can flush them out, these crystals can attract other chemicals and elements and form hard kidney stones.
There are four different types of kidney stones:
- Calcium: Calcium stones are the most common type of kidney stone. They’re generally the result of factors such as diet, high amounts of vitamin D, metabolic disorders, or gastric bypass surgery.
- Struvite: Struvite stones form as a result of urinary tract infections.
- Uric acid: Uric acid stones typically form as a result of fluid loss from chronic diarrhea or malabsorption. They can also form as the result of a high protein diet, diabetes, and some metabolic disorders.
- Cystine: Cystine stones form in people who have an inherited condition called cystinuria.
Gallstones and kidney stones are very different stones. They affect different organs, have different causes, and result in different symptoms.
Kidney stones form in the kidney and are often connected to factors like diet and hydration.
Gallstones form in the gallbladder and are typically connected to overall digestive health and liver function.
It’s possible to have gallstones without experiencing symptoms. However, when gallstones lodge in ducts, they can cause a blockage. This can result in symptoms such as:
- sudden pain in the right upper portion of your stomach that keeps getting worse
- sudden pain in the center of your stomach that keeps getting worse
- pain between your shoulder blades
- pain in your right shoulder
The symptoms of kidney stones depend on the size of the stone. Typically, larger kidney stones cause more severe symptoms.
Common symptoms include:
- severe lower back pain
- blood in urine
- lower abdominal or side pain
- increased urinary frequency
Gallstones only need treatment if they’re causing symptoms. In many cases, your doctor might recommend that you watch out for symptoms that could indicate you need treatment. When treatment is required, options include:
- Medications to dissolve gallstones: Prescription medications can sometimes be used to dissolve gallstones. These medications can take months to work and are not always a permanent solution.
- Gallbladder removal surgery: Since gallstones frequently recur, gallbladder removal surgery is sometimes a good option for people with severe symptoms. You can have your gallbladder removed without serious health effects.
The treatment for kidney stones depends on the size of the kidney stone. In the case of small kidney stones, you might be asked to drink large amounts of water. This can help your kidneys pass the stone naturally.
In other cases, prescription medication can help reduce the acid in your urine to make passing easier. Larger stones that are causing severe symptoms or that might be causing an infection sometimes require surgery. Surgical options include:
- Shock-wave lithotripsy: Shock-wave lithotripsy uses sound waves to break up the stones. They can then pass through the urine.
- Ureteroscopy: Ureteroscopy uses a thin tool called an endoscope that’s inserted through the urethra to remove the kidney stone.
- Nephrolithotomy:. This surgery creates a passageway from the kidney to the skin so that stones can be removed.
There are multiple factors that increase your risk for gallstones. These include:
- being over age 40
- being female
- having a family history of gallstones
- eating a high fat diet
- eating a high cholesterol diet
- eating a low fiber diet
- having diabetes
- having liver disease
- having leukemia, sickle anemia, or another blood-related disease
- having a sedentary lifestyle
- experiencing rapid weight loss
- taking medications that contain estrogen
There are several known factors that can increase your risk for kidney stones. These include:
- a family history of kidney stones
- having previous kidney stones
- living in a warm and dry climate
- a high protein diet
- a high sodium diet
- gastric bypass surgery
- having inflammatory bowel disease, chronic diarrhea, and other digestive diseases
- experiencing repeated urinary tract infections
- having medical conditions, including hyperparathyroidism, renal tubular acidosis, and cystinuria
- taking some medications and supplements, including some migraine medications and antidepressants.
Gallstones often recur. However, the majority of gallstones don’t cause symptoms and don’t need treatment. If you have recurring gallstones that do cause symptoms, gallbladder removal surgery is an option.
Gallbladder removal surgery is an effective and permanent way to prevent future gallstones.
Kidney stones can typically be treated very successfully. However, people who’ve had one kidney stone are at increased risk for a second kidney stone. There’s also an increased risk of chronic kidney disease.
If you’ve experienced a kidney stone, it’s a good idea to discuss your risk with your doctor. They can help you determine the steps you can take to help reduce your risk of future kidney complications.
You can learn more about gallstones and kidney stones by reading the answers to some common questions.
Can you prevent gallstones?
There’s no proven way to prevent gallstones, but you can reduce your risk. You can do this by taking steps, such as maintaining a moderate weight, adding fiber to your diet, and making sure you stick to regular meal times. It’s also a good idea to stick to safe goals, such as losing 1 to 2 pounds a week if you’re working to achieve a moderate weight.
Can you prevent kidney stones?
You can reduce your risk for kidney stones. One of the best ways to do this is to stay hydrated. It’s a good idea to drink water throughout the day and to reduce your intake of high sodium foods.
If you’ve had a kidney stone in the past, or if you’re at high risk for a kidney stone, talk with your doctor. They might be able to prescribe medications that can help reduce your risk.
How long does it take for a kidney stone to pass?
Small kidney stones will typically pass in about 1 to 2 weeks. Larger stones will pass in 2 to 3 weeks. Typically, any stone that takes longer than 4 weeks to pass will need medical treatment.
Gallstones and kidney stones are two similar-sounding conditions that actually have different causes, symptoms, and treatments.
Gallstones form in the gallbladder and may not cause symptoms or need treatment. However, they can cause serious pain and even infection, requiring treatment. When treatment is needed, it may include diet, medication, or gallbladder removal surgery.
Kidney stones form in the kidney and can be very painful. Some kidney stones pass on their own, but others require medication or surgery to break up the stones.