Gallstones and kidney stones — both solid, crystalized formations that develop in one’s digestive and urinary tracts, respectively — can cause severe pain when they get stuck, obstructing the natural flow of bile and urine.
Although both are known to cause sudden, sharp pain, there are several features that set them apart, say experts.
What are gallstones?
Dr Veerendra R Koujalagi, consultant, gastroenterology and hepatology, Manipal Hospital, Hebbal, Bangalore, says gallstones are solid stones that form in one’s gallbladder — an organ located in the abdomen responsible for storing bile (a fluid that aids digestion).
“Bile, which forms in the liver, is particularly required for fat digestion. It is released by the gallbladder as and when required by the [digestive] system,” says Dr Penmetsa Vijay Varma, consultant nephrologist at Yashoda Hospitals, Hyderabad.
“The stones usually form whenever there is excess bilirubin [bile pigment] or cholesterol in the gallbladder. They get deposited in the gall bladder along with the bile and crystalize, leading to the formation of gallbladder stones,” explains Dr Koujalagi.
According to the US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), the size of a gallstone can range from a grain of sand to a golf ball.
What are kidney stones?
Kidney stones are solid, crystallized substances that are formed within the kidney, explains Dr Varma. “They can form at the kidney and can get dislodged into the urinary pipe or the ureter. Whenever a kidney stone gets lodged in the urinary drain, it causes an obstruction, resulting in severe pain,” he says.
According to the NIDDK, the size of a kidney stone can range from a grain of sand to a pea.
Symptoms of gallstones
Dr Varma says those with gallstones or kidney stones may experience some associated symptoms, including fever, vomiting, etc.
Some symptoms of gallstones include:
- Fever and chills
- Pain in the upper right abdomen, which usually occurs after consuming food. It can often radiate to your back
However, Dr Koujalagi explains that gallstones can often be asymptomatic and are usually detected during a routine ultrasound examination.
Symptoms of kidney stones
Some common symptoms of kidney stones include:
- Fever and chills
- Sharp pain in the side and back (below the ribs), which can radiate to the lower abdomen and groin area
- Foul-smelling urine
Gallstones and kidney stones: Who’s at risk?
Dr Koujalagi says, “Traditionally, we believed that gallstones were more common among women in their 40s, who have had multiple childbirths, are obese and are of Caucasian descent. However, this doesn’t mean they won’t affect men and women of other age groups.”
He further notes that rapid weight loss can also lead to the formation of gallstones, as extra cholesterol is released into the bile while one’s body metabolizes fat. Elevated hormones during pregnancy also lead to elevated cholesterol levels in the bile, causing gallstones to develop in pregnant women. Speaking about gallstones in children, he cautions that those diagnosed must get screened for any underlying blood disorders.
Dr Varma says some people can have a genetic predisposition to developing kidney stones. Other factors that can put one at a higher risk for kidney stones include a previous history of such stones, a high-sodium diet, consuming junk or processed foods, being obese and being dehydrated. In addition, certain digestive complications, medical conditions and surgeries are also considered risk factors for such stones.
Dr Koujalagi says if a gallstone is detected during a routine health checkup but the individual does not show any symptoms and has normal liver function, immediate treatment may not be necessary. “One has to watch out for warning signs like upper abdominal pain and vomiting. In such a scenario, one must consult a gastroenterologist who will carry out the diagnosis and take a call on how to treat it based on its location,” he explains.
He further adds that if the stone is in the gallbladder and is causing obstruction or infection, removal of the gallbladder through surgery (known as cholecystectomy) is recommended. “If the stone is located in the bile duct, known as a bile duct stone, we recommend endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) — an endoscopic method that helps remove stones from the duct,” he notes.
Treating kidney stones
Dr Varma says when it comes to kidney stones, the smaller ones (less than 6 mm) usually have a higher chance of passing through one’s system naturally. “Sometimes, kidney stones can get stuck in the junction between one’s ureter and bladder. In such cases, surgery may be required,” he adds.
Common treatment options available for treating larger kidney stones include laser lithotripsy, where a larger kidney stone is broken down into smaller pieces using a laser and percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PCNL), where a small incision is made in the back to access the kidneys and remove the stones.
Preventing gallstones and kidney stones
Dr Koujalagi says preventing gallstones usually involves maintaining a well-balanced diet, an ideal body weight and a healthy lifestyle. “Rapid weight loss resulting from excessive fasting or dieting can increase your risk for gallstones. Hence, maintaining an ideal body weight through a balanced diet can help prevent their occurrence,” he adds.
Dr Varma says a key factor in preventing kidney stones is ensuring adequate hydration. “One must drink at least 2–3 liters of water per day at frequent intervals. They can’t consume a liter in the morning, then again in the evening and assume that their hydration needs have been met,” he adds.
- Gallstones are solid stones that form in one’s gallbladder, while kidney stones are solid, crystallized substances that are formed within the kidney. Gallstones can cause an obstruction in the digestive system, while kidney stones can get dislodged into the urinary pipe or the ureter, causing obstruction and pain.
- Symptoms of gallstones and kidney stones include fever, chills, vomiting and pain in the upper right abdomen as well as below the ribs.
- Both types of stones can be prevented by following a balanced diet, maintaining an ideal body weight through an active lifestyle and ensuring adequate hydration.