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While they might be confused with one another because they both involve painful stones, gallstones and kidney stones are entirely different issues. They’re formed differently, target different organs, and cause completely different symptoms. But, what they have in common is that they can both cause a huge amount of pain and discomfort.

Gallstones (Cholelithiasis): A Digestive Dilemma

The gallbladder is a small organ nestled just under the liver, with a crucial function – it stores the bile that is produced by the liver. The stones that form in it are hard, crystalline deposits that range in size from being as small as a grain of sand to as large as a lime or golf ball. How big or small they are usually affects how mild or serious their effect on your health is.

These stones form for different reasons; including the abnormal emptying of the gallbladder, bilirubin in the bile (caused by cirrhosis of the liver, infections in the biliary tract, and certain blood disorders), or an excessive amount of cholesterol.

Symptoms and Dangers of Gallstones

You’ll only know that you have gallstones when one of them blocks a bile duct. This can lead to a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Severe pain in the upper part of the abdomen that gets worse and worse very quickly
  • Fever/chills
  • Pain between the shoulder blades
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Indigestion
  • Burping/gas
  • Inability to digest fatty or oily foods
  • Clay-coloured stool

If you experience these symptoms, it’s important to go straight to the doctor for a diagnosis.

But, you may have gallstones without even knowing about them, simply because one of them hasn’t yet blocked a duct.

Apart from the pain and discomfort, gallstones that have been left can cause pancreatitis or cancer over time. So, it’s important to investigate your symptoms early on.


Treatment depends on the severity of your symptoms and possible complications. You may be eligible for medication that dissolves the stones, but this is rare. Sometimes, doctors need to monitor the situation for a while. If symptoms become too intense, the stone(s) need to be removed surgically.

Lifestyle and Diet

To prevent gallstones in the future, you should:

  • Get to and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid losing weight very quickly (as in crash diets or dramatic fasting).
  • Get regular, consistent exercise.
  • Get enough healthy fibre and fats in your diet.

Kidney Stones (Nephrolithiasis): A Renal Challenge

These types of stones form in the kidneys when waste that is usually excreted in the urine crystallises. This happens when there is too much waste and not enough liquid in the urine. There are different types of kidney stones (including calcium, struvite, uric acid, and cystine stones). Each has a specific cause; including genetic factors, dietary habits, frequent bladder infections, gout, or even chemotherapy.

These are far more painful than gallstones.

Symptoms and Dangers of Kidney Stones

The following symptoms may indicate that you’re battling kidney stones:

  • Excruciating pain in the back and/or abdomen
  • Pain may move to the sides of your back, groin, testicles, or vagina
  • Blood in your urine (or urine of an unusual colour)
  • Fever/chills
  • Frequent urination
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Cloudy urine
  • Urine that smells bad

These stones cause a blockage in the flow of urine, which can lead to major infection, kidney damage, and even total kidney failure. Although extremely rare, this can be life-threatening.  


Smaller stones can sometimes be passed (painfully) while urinating. So, drink plenty of water to force extra urination. Larger stones may need to be dissolved with medication or removed surgically (especially if the stone is growing or causing threatening complications).

Lifestyle and Diet

One of the most important things you can do to prevent kidney stones is to drink enough water so that your kidneys are well-flushed and working efficiently. Eating well and exercising regularly to maintain a healthy weight are also crucial to preventing stones. In general, it’s important to get calcium from food, rather than from supplements, if possible. If you’re susceptible to calcium oxalate stones (one of the types of kidney stones), then avoid spinach, nuts, and chocolate, as these are high in oxalates.

Moving Forward with Stones

While sharing some superficial similarities, gallstones and kidney stones are very different. But, the common denominator to prevention in the long run is to have a balanced approach to your general health and well-being. Don’t underestimate the value of regular exercise, a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy weight.

To be in the best health possible, add the following to your daily routine:

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