What’s the Difference Between Gallbladder and Kidney Stones?

One is related to your urinary system, while the other is related to your digestive system
Illustration of the human body with organs depicted highlighting the gallbladder and kidney with closeups of each organ with stones.

They’re usually just a few millimeters in size, but they can be oh-so-painful.

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We’re talking about stones — gallbladder stones (or gallstones) and kidney stones, that is. They form in different systems of your body, but they’re similar in many ways.

For example, both gallstones and kidney stones are common and can exist inside your body without any issues. They won’t cause pain or require treatment unless they move or get big enough to block the regular flow of fluids in their respective bodily systems.

Get to know the difference between gallbladder and kidney stones with help from gastroenterologist Michael Kirsch, MD, and urologist Sri Sivalingam, MD.

What’s the difference between a kidney and a gallbladder?

Your kidneys are the two bean-shaped organs, which are part of your urinary system that filters your blood. They remove waste from your body in the form of urine (pee), and they help balance your body’s fluids and electrolytes.

Your gallbladder, on the other hand, is part of your digestive system. It stores bile, which is used to break down fats in your digestive system. It’s located in the upper right part of your abdomen, sitting just underneath your liver.

What’s the difference between gallbladder and kidney stones?

Gallstones (gallbladder stones) develop in your digestive tract and can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. Gallstones can cause a blockage in your gallbladder or bile ducts. A diet high in fat or cholesterol can contribute to the development of gallstones.

Kidney stones develop in your urinary tract and can be as small as a grain of sand but can grow to several inches in diameter. Kidney stones move through your urinary tract into your ureter and block the flow of urine. A diet high in sodium, oxalates or animal protein can contribute to the development of kidney stones. An insufficient intake of fluids or calcium can also lead to the formation of kidney stones.

Symptoms of gallstones

If you have gallstones, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Back pain.
  • Chest pain.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Fever and chills.
  • Jaundice.
  • Dark-colored urine.  

Where does it hurt?

Gallstones cause pain in your mid-upper abdomen that may radiate to your back or under your right shoulder.

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Symptoms of kidney stones

If you have kidney stones, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Severe back pain that may travel down to your groin.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Blood in your urine.
  • Painful urination.
  • Increased frequency or urgency of urination.
  • Foul-smelling or cloudy urine.
  • Fever and chills.

Where does it hurt?

Kidney stones cause sharp pain in your lower back or side of your body, which may radiate to your lower abdomen and groin.

Treatment for gallstones

Most people who have gallstones may not need any treatment if they’re not having symptoms.

But if you’re having problems with your gallstones, your doctor may recommend having your gallbladder removed. This is typically done laparoscopically and is considered a routine surgery.

Treatment for kidney stones

If you have kidney stones, the size of the stone typically dictates the treatment. If your stone is 10 millimeters or less, it may pass on its own. Medication can help decrease any pain, ease any nausea or vomiting, and relax your ureter, which may help the stone pass. 

There are several minimally invasive surgical options available, like:

Who’s at risk for gallstones?

Gallstones are most common in middle-aged adults.

There’s an increased risk for:

  • Women or those assigned female at birth.
  • Adults over 40.
  • People who have a BMI (body mass index) greater than 25 (have overweight).
  • People who have lost a significant amount of weight in a short period of time.
  • People who take cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Prevention of gallstones

To reduce your risk of getting gallstones, you want to focus on how much cholesterol you consume. Here are a few ways you can do this:

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  • Limit fried and fast foods.
  • Replace red meat with fish.
  • Eat more high-fiber fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Lose weight gradually.

Who’s at risk for kidney stones?

Kidney stones are the most common in middle-aged adults.

There’s an increased risk for:

  • People who have a family history of kidney stones.
  • People with low fluid intake or very low urine volumes.
  • Those with diets excessive in certain substances like salt, animal protein and oxalates.
  • People who have other health conditions that affect the levels of certain substances in their urine.

Prevention of kidney stones

To decrease your chances of getting kidney stones, follow these tips.

  • Drink enough fluids throughout the day to produce more than 2 liters of urine daily.
  • Limit your salt intake.
  • Make dietary modifications based on a 24-hour urine study.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.

When to see a doctor

It can be hard to determine what may be causing you abdominal pain and if you should seek treatment.  

While the pain from a gallstone is typically in your upper right quadrant of your abdomen, it may feel like the pain is coming from your back or right shoulder. If you’re experiencing nausea and vomiting, it’s time to see your doctor.

As for kidney stones, you may feel flank pain and think you have back issues. If you think you have a kidney stone, you should see a doctor, who will perform tests to figure out where the stone is located and how big it is.

Bottom line? If you’re having abdominal pain — be it kidney or gallbladder — don’t hesitate to reach out to a healthcare provider.

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