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Gallbladder Polyps vs Gallstones: What's the Difference?

Medically reviewed by Mia Dacumos, MD · Nephrology · Makati Medical Center

Written by Tracey Romero · Updated Dec 28, 2020

    Gallbladder Polyps vs Gallstones: What's the Difference?

    When it comes to gallbladder polyps vs gallstones, are there differences between these two conditions? Read on.

    The Role of Bile in the Digestive System

    Bile is one of the bodily fluids that assist in the process of digestion and it is made through the human biliary system. The human biliary system is a group of organs responsible for the production, transport, and storage of bile. The primary functions of bile include breaking down fats during digestion and getting rid of waste from the body through feces. 

    Bile is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Despite its minor role in digestion, the gallbladder can be vulnerable to conditions such as gallbladder polyps and gallstones. 

    Gallbladder Polyps vs Gallstones

    Both of these conditions mainly affect the gallbladder but the main difference between gallbladder polyps vs gallstones is their composition.

    Gallbladder polyps are protruding lesions that grow on the tissue of the gallbladder. Gallstones are made up of a mixture of cholesterol, calcium salts of bilirubinate or palmitate, proteins, and mucin.

    However, both can be detected using the same procedures. Gallstones and gallbladder polyps can also cause symptoms only if they block the nearby ducts such as the bile duct. Although both can increase a person’s risk of gallbladder cancer, gallstones can’t be benign or malignant like gallbladder polyps.

    What are Gallbladder Polyps?

    Gallbladder polyps are growths that appear on the tissue lining the inside of the gallbladder. In some cases, gallbladder polyps may be malignant and can cause cancer of the gallbladder. However, 95% of gallbladder polyps are harmless and won’t cause any harm.

    To determine whether or not a gallbladder polyp is cancerous, experts usually refer to its size:

    • Gallbladder polyps that are ½ inch to 1 cm are usually benign and don’t need treatment.
    • Gallbladder polyps that have a diameter of ½ inches may develop cancer cells.
    • Gallbladder polyps that measure almost 2 inches in diameter have a high chance of becoming malignant polyps.

    Symptoms of Gallbladder Polyps

    Usually, gallbladder polyps don’t cause any discomfort. In the rare event that they do, they may cause the following symptoms:

    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Pain in the stomach, specifically the right side of the abdomen

    Diagnosing Gallbladder Polyps

    A polyp in the gallbladder is usually detected when a doctor conducts other tests related to conditions that require a further examination of the stomach and its other parts. Some tests that can detect gallbladder polyps are the following:

    • Abdominal ultrasound: This procedure is a type of imaging test used to take a look at the organs located in the abdomen such as the kidneys, pancreas, liver, spleen, and gallbladder. This test creates a clear picture of the organs using sound waves and doesn’t involve radiation.
    • Endoscopic ultrasound: An endoscopic ultrasound involves the use of an endoscope which is inserted through the mouth in order to examine the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Images produced by an endoscopic ultrasound are clearer and much more detailed, which means that it can detect anomalies much easier.
    • CT scan: A CT scan of the abdomen can also be done.

    These three types of physical exams are usually performed to detect the presence of kidney stones, gallstones, and even tumors. In many cases, an endoscopic ultrasound can even examine how deep a tumor has grown and how far cancer has reached in the digestive system.

    Complications of Gallbladder Polyps

    Despite the fact that gallbladder polyps are rare, they may cause some serious consequences to your health. A polyp can grow large enough to block the main bile duct. 

    A polyp blocking the main bile duct may cause biliary colic. Gallbladder stones that fall into the bile duct can cause pancreatitis. Pancreatitis does not directly cause kidney failure.

    Gallbladder polyps that are on the larger size may develop cancer cells and cause gallbladder cancer. 

    What are Gallstones?

    Gallstones are formed in the gallbladder when there is too much cholesterol or bilirubin present in your bile. Excess cholesterol or bilirubin remains in the gallbladder and forms crystals that eventually harden into deposits known as gallstones. 

    Symptoms of Gallstones

    Just like gallbladder polyps, gallstones don’t cause any symptoms unless they cause blockages in the gallbladder. Possible symptoms that may indicate that a gallstone is stuck in a nearby duct are the following:

    • Similar to a gallbladder polyp, a person with gallstones may experience pain in the right side of the stomach or abdomen. The pain is sometimes noted to be aggravated by the intake of a meal. Pain can be localized in the right upper abdomen.
    • Nausea 
    • Vomiting
    • A pain that radiates from the right shoulder, also called referred pain
    • Back pain
    • Sudden onset of jaundice

    Diagnosis of Gallstones

    If your doctor suspects that you have gallstones, they may subject you to a series of tests to take a look into the gallbladder. Some tests that your doctor may perform include:

    • Abdominal Ultrasound: An abdominal ultrasound can also be used to determine the presence of gallstones.
    • Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): This procedure is similar to an endoscopy but involves additional tools to take an in-depth look at the bile and pancreatic duct. 

    Complications of Gallstones

    Just like gallbladder polyps, gallstones can cause blockages in the bile duct, or choledocholithiases, that can lead to pancreatitis, as well as pain and yellowing of the skin (jaundice). Gallstones can also lead to gallbladder cancer. 

    To avoid complications of gallstones or gallbladder polyps, your doctor may recommend a cholecystectomy. This is done if pain is persistent, causing cholecystitis. A cholecystectomy is also recommended for those with polyps that are larger in size to prevent the development of cancer cells. 

    There are two classifications of cholecystectomy, namely:

    • Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy: This involves the insertion of a small video camera into one of the four incisions required for this procedure.
    • Open Cholecystectomy: Unlike the laparoscopic cholecystectomy, an open cholecystectomy only requires one 6-inch long incision. 

    After a cholecystectomy, an individual can still live a normal life and can continue functioning without a gallbladder. If ever, they may just have difficulty digesting fatty food and the like.

    Key Takeaways

    When it comes to the discussion of gallbladder polyps vs gallstones, gallstones and gallbladder polyps are both conditions of the gallbladder. Although they differ in their composition, both can have serious consequences on a person’s health. To reduce a person’s risk of developing gallbladder cancer from either gallstones or gallbladder polyps, a cholecystectomy is often recommended.

    Learn more about Digestive Health here. 


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Mia Dacumos, MD

    Nephrology · Makati Medical Center

    Written by Tracey Romero · Updated Dec 28, 2020

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