How Gallbladder Stone Pain Differs From Kidney Stone Pain

September 20, 2021 – 4 min read

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How Gallbladder Stone Pain Differs From Kidney Stone Pain

Gallbladder stone pain can be easy to mistake for kidney stone pain. That’s because both conditions can cause stomach discomfort and share other symptoms. The similarities extend further between kidney stones and gallbladder stones, which are also known as gallstones. Both can be as small as a grain of sand, or much larger. Both can cause blockages that disrupt important bodily functions. There is also a connection between gallstones and kidney stones. Gallbladder stones may increase the risk of kidney stones and vice versa, according to a study in the journal Nature.

Can gallbladder pain be mistaken for kidney stones? Telling the difference comes down to knowing where else besides the stomach discomfort is coming from, as well as what symptoms they don’t have in common. Imaging plays a key role in diagnosing both conditions. In fact, gallbladder stones and kidney stones are two things ultrasound can detect.

Gallbladder stones 101

Cholesterol or a substance in bile called bilirubin can solidify to form stone-like deposits in the gallbladder. You don’t usually notice gallbladder stone pain until these stones leave the gallbladder and lodge in a bile duct causing a painful episode called a gallbladder attack. Without treatment, a blocked bile duct can lead to inflammation of the gallbladder. If a gallstone blocks the pancreatic duct, it can cause inflammation of the pancreas. In rare cases, gallstones can block the small intestine.

Women have a much higher risk for gallstones than men, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. Risk factors for gallstone disease include:

  • Birth control pills
  • Blood disorders, such as anemia
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of gallstones
  • High-fat diet
  • Liver disease
  • Pregnancy
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Rapid weight loss due to surgery or a low-calorie diet

Defining kidney stones

Urine too high in calcium, salts, and other minerals can lead to kidney stones, hard objects formed in the kidneys. As with gallbladder stone pain, kidney stone pain usually occurs when the stones leave their home organ. Kidney stones can get stuck in the ureter, the tube that carries urine from kidney to bladder. This can block urine from reaching the bladder, causing pain.

Kidney stone risk factors include:

  • A family history of kidney stones
  • Diets high in sodium, animal protein or fructose, a type of sugar
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Low urine volume from not getting enough fluids
  • Obesity
  • Weight loss surgery

Treating kidney stones can help prevent complications, including urinary tract infections and kidney damage.

How do I know if I have gallstones or kidney stones?

To tell the difference between gallbladder stone and kidney stone pain, pay attention to the location of the pain. Gallbladder and kidney stones both can cause stomach pain, but the former is more likely to be in the middle of the upper stomach or on the upper right side. Gallbladder stone pain may come and go or remain constant for 30 minutes or more, and it may be intense or dull. Kidney stone pain that affects the stomach is usually less precisely located and more consistent than gallbladder stone pain. You’re much more likely, however, to experience kidney stone pain in your lower back. When gallbladder stone pain affects the back, it’s usually the upper back.

Both gallstones and kidney stones can cause fever, nausea and vomiting. Other symptoms that may occur during gallbladder attacks include:

  • Light-colored stools
  • Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, known as jaundice

Additional kidney stones symptoms include:

  • A burning sensation when urinating
  • Blood in the urine
  • Foul-smelling urine
  • Intense urges to urinate

Ultrasound’s role in diagnosing gallbladder stones and kidney stones

Doctors can use a variety of blood tests and imaging scans to diagnose gallbladder stones and kidney stones, but one of the most important tools is ultrasound. Different types of ultrasound are better at detecting each condition:

  • Abdominal ultrasound. This scan can show inflammation in the gallbladder or blockages in the bile ducts from gallstones.
  • Renal ultrasound. This scan can reveal kidney stones in the two organs or ureters.

An accurate diagnosis can help your doctor decide on the best course of treatment. For gallstones, especially ones causing symptoms, that may mean laparoscopic surgery to remove your gallbladder. Kidney stones may pass on their own. For those too large to do so, your doctor may perform a procedure to break them up or remove them.

If your doctor orders an ultrasound scan to look for gallbladder stones or kidney stones, numerous American Health Imaging centers offer same-day appointments and a lower-cost scan than at the hospital.

Checking for gallbladder stones is just one reason your doctor may order an ultrasound scan. Learn about the many other reasons doctors use ultrasound.