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Gallstones are pieces of solid matter that form in the gallbladder. The gallbladder stores bile, which helps your body digest food. Gallstones form when parts of the bile turn into crystals. There are two types of gallstones: pigment and cholesterol. Most people have cholesterol gallstones. They sometimes form as lots of small stones. Or, they may form as one big stone. A lot of times, gallstones don't cause any symptoms. When they do, some common symptoms include:

  • A really bad pain in the upper stomach area or right side, which may last for hours
  • Pain in the right shoulder or between your shoulder blades
  • Nausea or throwing up
  • Sweating
  • Indigestion (upset stomach) or stomach bloating after a fatty meal

Some factors that put you more at risk for gallstones include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having extra estrogen from pregnancy, birth control pills, or menopausal hormone therapy
  • Being a woman
  • Being over 60 years old
  • Taking drugs that lower cholesterol
  • Having diabetes
  • Losing weight quickly

Because of high levels of cholesterol in their bile, more American Indians have gallstones than other women in the United States. Among the Pima Indians of Arizona, 70 percent of women have gallstones by age 30.

If you have gallstones without symptoms, you probably won't need to do anything. Treatment for gallstones with symptoms usually means removing the gallbladder.

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Content last updated: May 18, 2010.

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