Gallstones are hard, pebble-like pieces of material that form in the gallbladder. Most gallstones do not cause symptoms. If they do, a person may require treatment. A doctor may prescribe bile salt tablets to help dissolve gallstones.

Gallstones often form from cholesterol or bilirubin in the gallbladder. They can range in size and may eventually block a bile duct. If a blockage occurs, a person may experience sudden, severe pain in the upper right abdomen.

Gallstones are very common and affect about 25 million American adults. About a quarter of the 1 million people who receive a gallstone diagnosis each year require treatment, which typically involves surgical intervention.

In some cases, a doctor may prescribe bile salts to help reduce the size of the stones or help break them up. For example, healthcare professionals may recommend bile salt tablets for people with nonacute cholecystitis and people who cannot have surgery due to other health conditions.

This article discusses bile salts, types of bile salt tablets that may help with gallstones, other treatment methods, and more.

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Bile salts are a naturally occurring substance present in bile. The liver produces bile and then releases it into the gallbladder. This organ helps concentrate and store the bile until the hormone cholecystokinin stimulates its release through the bile ducts and into the small intestine. The bile salts and acid help digest fats by breaking them down into smaller sizes.

Without bile salts, a person’s body would not be able to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, which include vitamins A, D, E, and K. Additionally, the liver transforms cholesterol into bile acids, which helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

The gallbladder only releases about 5% of bile acid during digestion. The body reabsorbs the remaining amount.

Bile salt tablets are synthetic forms of bile acid that a doctor may prescribe to help treat gallstones.


Doctors may prescribe ursodeoxycholic acid or ursodiol for cholesterol gallstones. The medication comes in 250 and 300 milligram (mg) tablets or capsules.

The tablets may help with some gallstones that are about 20 millimeters (mm) or less or in helping prevent gallstone formation in people with obesity.

Though generally well-tolerated, ursodiol may cause some side effects, such as:

Less commonly, it could cause depression or hypersensitivity reactions. Additionally, healthcare professionals may monitor people taking ursodiol for liver issues and toxicity.

While some people may find ursodiol helpful, experts indicate that the medication has, at best, less than a 50% success rate in breaking up or dissolving gallstones with daily usage.


Chenodiol is another type of bile acid that the body produces naturally and that a doctor may prescribe for gallstones. The medication comes in 250 mg tablets.

Side effects of chenodiol may include:

Doctors tend to prescribe ursodiol instead of chenodiol as people typically tolerate ursodiol better. Also, chenodiol only has about a 15–30% success rate in dissolving cholesterol gallstones after a person takes it for 2 years or more.

Typically, doctors treat gallstones by removing the gallbladder altogether in a procedure called a cholecystectomy. A healthcare professional may perform laparoscopic cholecystectomy or open cholecystectomy.

A person may be able to go home the same day as laparoscopic cholecystectomy, but they will typically require a hospital stay if they have open cholecystectomy.

If a person cannot have surgery, a doctor may recommend endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) in certain cases. For example, a healthcare professional may remove a gallstone stuck in the common bile duct during ERCP.

Another option doctors may recommend is shock wave lithotripsy. This procedure helps break up larger gallstones. Doctors may use the procedure in conjunction with ursodiol.

Gallstones may cause sudden, severe pain in the upper right abdomen if they become stuck in the bile ducts. A person should speak with a doctor to determine the cause of the pain.

In some cases, gallstones may cause complications such as:

People should speak with a healthcare professional if they think they may be experiencing any of the conditions above. In some cases, gallstones can be fatal if a person does not receive treatment.

Bile salt tablets may help break up or dissolve gallstones. However, research indicates that they are not particularly effective. The most common treatment for gallstones is to removal of the gallbladder.

Many people tolerate bile salt tablets, but they may increase the risk of liver toxicity. They may also cause mild to severe side effects such as headaches, nausea, and fatigue.

A healthcare professional can recommend which treatments may work best for people on an individual basis.