This Is the Early Sign of Gallstones People Miss the Most Often, According to a Gastroenterologist

Anyone who has ever experienced a gallbladder attack will tell you how excruciating it feels. The sudden pain is so intense that it can cause nausea and vomiting or chills. It can be especially surprising considering that, the vast majority of the time, we don’t give our gallbladders a second thought. Do you even know where it’s located and what it does?

Gallbladder attacks are caused by gallstones, or a buildup of bile. Often this buildup happens without someone even realizing it until they actually experience a gallbladder attack. But if you know the common signs of gallstones, you may be able to seek treatment early, preventing an attack.

Related: Wondering Why Your Stomach Hurts After You Eat? Here Are 9 Possible Reasons

What Are Gallstones and What Causes Them?

“Gallstones are deposits of digestive fluid that harden and form in your gallbladder,” explains Dr. Andrew S. Boxer, MD, a gastroenterologist at Gastroenterology Associates of New Jersey. Not sure what the purpose of the gallbladder is? Dr. Boxer explains that the gallbladder is an organ that holds digestive enzymes and attaches near the liver. “When hormones signal someone is eating, the gallbladder will contract and secrete these fluids,” he says.

Dr. Shilpa Mehra Dang, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Medical Offices of Manhattan and a contributor to, says gallstones are made up of cholesterol, bilirubin (a yellowish pigment made during the breakdown of red blood cells) and other chemicals found in bile, which is a digestive fluid made by the liver.

“Gallstones form when there is a mismatch in the way bile is made, which makes it too thick or full of too much cholesterol. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as a diet that has too much cholesterol in it, a diseased liver, being overweight, different types of anemia or rapid weight loss,” Dr. Dang explains.

Related: So You're Dealing With a Sharp Pain In Your Stomach—Here Are 10 Signs That It's Time to Talk to a Doctor

Dr. Dang says that gallstones range in size and shape. If the gallstone is small, she says someone might not even know it’s there. Other times, a gallstone will definitely make itself known. “They can cause painful gallbladder attacks, infection, or other problems. Depending on how bad the symptoms are, you may need to have surgery to remove the gallbladder,” Dr. Dang says.

The Common Early Signs of Gallstones Most People Miss

How do you know if you have a gallstone? Unfortunately, Dr. Boxer says that sometimes a gallbladder attack will happen without any warning signs. But he adds that the earliest signs to be aware of include right shoulder pain, nausea and abdominal pain.

There’s one early sign in particular that Dr. Dang says many people miss. “The early sign of gallstones that is most often missed is biliary colic, which is mild pain or soreness in the upper abdomen that comes and goes,” she explains.

Dr. Dang says that typically, this pain happens after eating a big meal. “Most of the time, this pain is in the upper right part of the belly, just below the ribs. People frequently mistake it for indigestion or general stomach pain, which causes them to ignore it or believe it to be the result of something else,” she says.

What To Do if You're Experiencing Symptoms

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, both doctors say to see a healthcare provider. That way, you can get an exam to determine if gallstones are causing your pain. Dr. Dang says that a doctor may order tests to determine if gallstones are the culprit. She says that common tests include an ultrasound of the abdomen, which can show the gallbladder and any stones, and a blood test to look for signs of inflammation or infection.

Related: The Very Best Foods to Eat When You Have an Upset Stomach—and the Ones to Avoid

“Be ready to talk about your medical history, including any times you've had stomach pain before, the food you typically eat and your family's medical background. This knowledge can help the doctor or nurse figure out what's wrong,” Dr. Dang says.

Unfortunately, both doctors say that often gallstones can’t be prevented. However, if you want to lower your risk, both doctors say to avoid foods high in saturated fat and to make sure you’re getting enough fiber. Dr. Dang says that it’s also important to drink enough water, which keeps bile diluted and helps prevent concentrated bile from forming.

“Keep in mind that these steps can help lower your risk of getting gallstones, but they might not prevent them completely, especially if you have other risk factors like a history of gallstones in your family. If you have pain in your abdomen or other signs of gallstones, you should see a doctor right away,” Dr. Dang says.

The bottom line is that if something in your body feels “off,” it’s always a good idea to talk about it with your healthcare provider. They may be able to spot gallstones before they cause a painful attack. Sometimes, the offense really is your best defense.

Next up, find out the three main reasons for a growling stomach.