Gallstones are pieces of solid digestive fluid that form in the gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ under the liver. The gallbladder’s job is to store bile, a fluid made by the liver to digest fat. As the stomach and intestines digest food, the gallbladder releases bile through a tube called the common bile duct. Gallstones form when substances such as cholesterol in the bile harden.

Gallstones also may form if the gallbladder does not empty completely or often enough. They range from the size of a grain of sand to as large as a golf ball. Larger gallstones may block the bile duct completely.


Some gallstones cause no symptoms, but others cause pain in the upper right abdomen, the center of the breastbone, between the shoulder blades, or in the right shoulder. The pain can last a few minutes to several hours. Many people refer to this as a “gallbladder attack.” Gallstones often are found while being examined for another medical condition.


Gallstones may be inherited, and some groups of people are more prone to gallstones, including:

  • Women
  • Older adults
  • People who are very overweight
  • People with high hormone levels
  • People with diabetes
  • Those taking medications to lower their cholesterol

UAB GI program

UAB Medicine is known worldwide as a leading center for digestive and liver disorders. Our gastroenterology and gastrointestinal (GI) program is consistently ranked among the nation’s best by U.S. News & World Report. We see over 20,000 patients and perform more than 12,000 outpatient procedures each year.

Our GI program is also historically significant. The inventor of the endoscope, Basil Hirschowitz, M.D., founded our program more than 50 years ago. His innovation revolutionized diagnoses for GI and other conditions and continues to inspire us today. Our interventional endoscopy group, which includes endoscopic ultrasound, is one of the busiest and most prestigious in the country – both clinically and academically.

UAB Medicine continues to lead advancements in gastroenterology through active clinical research trials involving the latest drug therapies and other treatments for digestive disorders. Our doctors and scientists are searching for causes and cures for many GI illnesses through basic research. For example, they study how the bacteria in our intestines affect our health.

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