Nat Rev Dis Primers. 2016 Apr 28:2:16024. doi: 10.1038/nrdp.2016.24.


Gallstones grow inside the gallbladder or biliary tract. These stones can be asymptomatic or symptomatic; only gallstones with symptoms or complications are defined as gallstone disease. Based on their composition, gallstones are classified into cholesterol gallstones, which represent the predominant entity, and bilirubin ('pigment') stones. Black pigment stones can be caused by chronic haemolysis; brown pigment stones typically develop in obstructed and infected bile ducts. For treatment, localization of the gallstones in the biliary tract is more relevant than composition. Overall, up to 20% of adults develop gallstones and >20% of those develop symptoms or complications. Risk factors for gallstones are female sex, age, pregnancy, physical inactivity, obesity and overnutrition. Factors involved in metabolic syndrome increase the risk of developing gallstones and form the basis of primary prevention by lifestyle changes. Common mutations in the hepatic cholesterol transporter ABCG8 confer most of the genetic risk of developing gallstones, which accounts for ∼25% of the total risk. Diagnosis is mainly based on clinical symptoms, abdominal ultrasonography and liver biochemistry tests. Symptoms often precede the onset of the three common and potentially life-threatening complications of gallstones (acute cholecystitis, acute cholangitis and biliary pancreatitis). Although our knowledge on the genetics and pathophysiology of gallstones has expanded recently, current treatment algorithms remain predominantly invasive and are based on surgery. Hence, our future efforts should focus on novel preventive strategies to overcome the onset of gallstones in at-risk patients in particular, but also in the population in general.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biliary Tract / abnormalities
  • Bilirubin / metabolism
  • Cholesterol / metabolism
  • Gallbladder / abnormalities
  • Gallbladder / metabolism
  • Gallbladder / surgery*
  • Gallstones / complications*
  • Gallstones / epidemiology
  • Gallstones / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Risk Factors


  • Cholesterol
  • Bilirubin