Difference between Gallstones and Kidney Stones

Updated on June 27, 2017

Pain is a cause of distress for any individual. And while exterior wounds are easier to see and treat, it’s internal pain that scares us the most. Some organs develop conditions resulting in pain that irradiates. This means that you cannot associate the painful area with the affected organ. And while most times we fear the worst, culprits such as gallstones and kidney stones may be behind the worst of pains. Here is what you need to know about these two and how they differ.

Descriptions

Gallstones
A gallbladder filled with gallstones

A gallstone is a stone that forms in the gallbladder. It is caused by an excess of cholesterol or excess bile, and it is usually asymptomatic. Cholesterol gallstones are more common. They are formed when the liver dumps more cholesterol than your bile can normally dissolve. Excess cholesterol remains in the gallbladder and takes the shape of these stones.

The other type of gallstones are made from bilirubin, a substance the body produces during the process of breaking down red blood cells. Too much bilirubin in your gall bladder will lead to the creation of stones. This is an effect of medical conditions leading to excess red blood cell production, such as blood disorders, biliary tract infections, and cirrhosis. Another cause of the formation of bilirubin stones is a lazy bladder that does not empty correctly, leading to bile remaining in the gallbladder. Compared to cholesterol gallstones, which are yellow-green, bilirubin gallstones are smaller and darker.

Among the risk factors for both types of gallstones are: a high-fat diet, lack of physical exercise, a genetic predisposition, diabetes, a low-fiber diet, diabetes, pregnancy, gender (women are more prone to develop gallstones), age (people over 40 are more prone to develop gallstones), ethnicity (Native Americans and Mexican Americans are more prone to develop gallstones), liver diseases, and different types of drugs such as oral contraceptives.

Normally, gallstones are asymptomatic, meaning that they may not cause any type of discomfort. However, if the gallstones move around and block the passage of secretions important for the normal process of digestion, then the situation of the patient changes.

Here are some cases in which gallstones can cause pain and discomfort:

  • When they block the ducts through which the bile is dumped into the small intestine (biliary colic). This causes bile duct infection and jaundice (when the white of the eyes turns yellow, a sign of excess bilirubin in the body).
  • When they block the pancreatic duct, causing pancreatitis. The pancreatic juices that help digestion no longer pass through the duct.
  • When they become stuck in the neck of the gallbladder and they cause gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis).

You cannot always know when you are dealing with gallstones, as they can lie undetected for a very long time. Also, when they do cause problems, the symptoms are sudden, intense, and can be hard to pin down as being caused by gallstones. Here are some of them:

  • Sudden and intense pain in the lower part of the abdomen or in the center, right below the breastbone
  • Pain in your shoulders
  • Vomiting
  • Back pain between the shoulder blades
  • Restlessness and the inability to find a comfortable position
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating
  • Bloating

A doctor must be consulted in case of jaundice, when the pain does not seem to go away, or when it is so bad there is no comfortable position to sit in. Most cases, people will see a doctor about other symptoms as well because they are sudden, intense, and worrisome.

Treatment usually calls for the removal of the gallbladder or the attempt to dissolve the gallstones by taking ursodeoxycholic acid for years. In cases of obstruction, an external technique that sends a shock wave through the body is used to break the stone into smaller pieces.

Kidney stones
Kidney stones removed from a patient

Kidney stones are small masses of minerals and salts that form inside kidneys. They are quite a common occurrence, although most people develop small stones that are passed through the urinary tract without any problems. The size of kidney stones can vary from a speck to a ping pong ball. One in 11 people will face such problems throughout their lifetime.

Depending on how they are formed, kidney stones are of four types:

  • Calcium stones – made of calcium oxalate; caused by high levels of calcium in the body.
  • Struvite stones – a serious condition associated with urinary infection; they can grow so large that surgery is required to remove them; women are more affected by this type of stone because they are more prone to urinary infections.
  • Uric acid stones – made of uric acid which should normally be eliminated with urine from the body; caused by a low urine output, a diet high in animal protein, alcohol, inflammatory bowel disease and gout.
  • Cystine stones – a less frequent condition, met with individuals of the same family with larger amounts of cystine in their urine.

The main cause of kidney stones is the lack of proper hydration. Water dilutes the uric acid content of urine. Without it, the acidity of urine increases, leading to urinary infections (higher chance of developing uric acid stones and struvite stones). Another cause of kidney stones is a high-protein diet and oxalate-rich foods (higher chances of developing calcium stones). Obesity is another factor, as it increases the quantity of calcium in urine. Diabetes, frequent urinary infections, Crohn’s disease and gout, intestinal surgery, low estrogen levels (associated with menopause), and age are other factors.

Kidney stones only cause discomfort when they start blocking the nearby passageways. They become lodged or they make their way down the urinary tract, causing excruciating pain. Symptoms of kidney stones include:

  • Severe pain on the side or in the groin
  • Fever (when associated with an infection)
  • Need to urinate frequently, in very small quantities that are also painful to eliminate (also associated with infections)
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Blood in urine
  • Restlessness
  • Sweating

People will consult a doctor and even go to the emergency room because the pain is almost unbearable. Treatment in the case of kidney stones depends on the size of the stones. Smaller ones are let pass by themselves and the patient is encouraged to drink large amounts of water to induce urination. Passing kidney stones is a very uncomfortable process for the patient. Larger stones are broken into smaller pieces before the patient passes them or they may need to be surgically removed. In some cases, where the stones are as large as the kidneys, the kidneys are removed and dialysis becomes necessary.

Gallstones vs Kidney Stones

So what is the difference between gallstones and kidney stones?

The gall bladder and the kidneys are important organs and they perform vital tasks, aiding digestion and helping the organism get rid of toxins. However, their bag-like constitution makes them prone to stone formation. Add to this an unbalanced way of life and you get a recipe for either one of the types of stones.

There are two types of gallstones and four types of kidney stones. The first are made up of cholesterol and bilirubin, while kidney stones are made up of minerals and salts.

The pain caused by gallstones is normally felt in the upper half of the body, in the ribs, back, and shoulder area, while the pain caused by kidney stones is felt in the lower half, in the groin and on the side.

Gallstones cause pain by blocking the nearby ducts and not allowing the liver and bile secretions to pass and to empty into the small intestine. Kidney stones cause pain when they start to travel down the urinary tract and when the urine is obstructed and stuck in the ureter. This causes an uncomfortable stretch.

Women are more prone to develop gallstones, but they are also a major group affected by kidney stones caused by urinary infections. Men are more likely to develop kidney stones. Apart from gender, gallstone development is also influenced by medication, ethnicity, age, and liver disease. Kidney stones are mainly caused by dehydration, high-protein diets, and digestive diseases.

A biliary colic – the pain caused by gallstones – can last a few minutes to a few hours, generally being grouped in episodes. The pain caused by kidney stones, however, can last from the moment the stone has been dislodged and has started travelling down the urinary tract to the moment of its elimination.

Gallstones cannot be passed through the organism like kidney stones. Instead, an acidic drug may be taken to dissolve the stones, but it takes years for it to have an effect. The most drastic measure in the case of gallstones implies taking out the gallbladder completely. Surgery is also a possible treatment for kidney stones, but it does not imply removing the kidneys except as a last resort. Severe cases will put a patient on dialysis, however.

Comparison Chart

GallstonesKidney Stones
Form in the gallbladderForm in the kidneys
Made of cholesterol and bilirubinMade of minerals and salts
Split into two categoriesSplit into four categories
More likely to affect womenMore likely to affect men
Major risk factors consist of high-fat, low-fiber diet, lack of physical exercise, ethnicity, liver disease, and the administration of certain drugs, like oral contraceptivesMajor risk factors are dehydration, a high-protein diet, digestive diseases, and frequent urinary infections
Sudden and severe pain in the upper part of the abdomen or the back between the shoulder bladesSudden and severe pain in the lower part of the abdomen or groin
Pain can last several minutes to several hoursPain is usually very intense and may last until the stone is passed
The doctor must be consulted when the patient no longer finds a comfortable position or the pain does not subside in 8 hoursThe doctor is usually consulted right away because the pain is intense and worrisome
Elimination procedures consist of dissolving the stones with years of medication, breaking them into smaller pieces so as not to block the nearby ducts, and removal of the gallbladderElimination procedures consist of trying to pass the stones through urine, breaking the stones into smaller pieces, surgically removing them, or replacing the kidney function with dialysis