Main Menu

Gallstones

Gallstones are small, pebble-like substances that develop in the gallbladder. They can become stuck in the bile ducts and lead to symptoms, including abdominal pain in the upper right region. The symptoms often occur after eating a meal, especially one high in fat, and can sometimes mimic those of a heart attack.

Gallbladder Gallstones

There are two types of gallstones; cholesterol stones and pigment stones. Cholesterol stones are usually yellow-green and are made primarily of hardened cholesterol. They account for about 80% of gallstones. Pigment stones are small, dark stones made of bilirubin.

Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. The gallbladder can develop just one large stone, hundreds of tiny stones, or a combination of both.

Gallstones can block the normal flow of bile if they move from the gallbladder and lodge in any of the ducts that carry bile from the liver to the small intestine. The ducts include the:

Sometimes gallstones passing through the common bile duct provoke pancreatitis, an extremely painful and potentially dangerous condition.

If any of the bile ducts remain blocked for a significant period of time, severe damage or infection can occur in the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas. Left untreated, the condition can be fatal. Warning signs of a serious problem are fever, jaundice, and persistent pain.

What causes gallstones?

The cause of pigment stones is not fully understood. The stones tend to develop in people who have liver cirrhosis, biliary tract infections, or hereditary blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia, in which the liver makes too much bilirubin.

The mere presence of gallstones may cause more gallstones to develop. Other factors that contribute to the formation of gallstones, particularly cholesterol stones, include:

What are the symptoms of gallstones?

As gallstones move into the bile ducts and create blockage, pressure increases in the gallbladder and one or more symptoms may occur. Symptoms of blocked bile ducts are often called a gallbladder “attack” because they occur suddenly. Gallbladder attacks often follow fatty meals, and they may occur during the night. A typical attack can cause:

Notify your doctor if you think you have experienced a gallbladder attack. Although these attacks often pass as gallstones move, your gallbladder can become infected and rupture if a blockage remains.

People with any of the following symptoms should see a doctor immediately:

Many people with gallstones have no symptoms; these gallstones are called “silent stones.” They do not interfere with gallbladder, liver, or pancreas function and do not need treatment.

How are gallstones diagnosed?

Frequently, gallstones are discovered during tests for other health conditions. When gallstones are suspected to be the cause of symptoms, the doctor is likely to do an ultrasound exam—the most sensitive and specific test for gallstones. The ultrasound waves bounce off the gallstones, showing their location. Other tests may also be performed.

Because gallstone symptoms may be similar to those of a heart attack, appendicitis, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hiatal hernia, pancreatitis, and hepatitis, an accurate diagnosis is important.

How are gallstones treated?

Surgical treatment for gallstones - Cholecystectomy

If you have gallstones without symptoms, you do not require treatment. If you are having frequent gallbladder attacks, your doctor will likely recommend you have your gallbladder removed—an operation called a cholecystectomy. Surgery to remove the gallbladder is one of the most common surgeries performed on adults in the United States.

Nearly all cholecystectomies are performed with laparoscopy.

If gallstones are present in the bile ducts, the physician may use ERCP to locate and remove them before or during gallbladder surgery. Occasionally, a person who has had a cholecystectomy is diagnosed with a gallstone in the bile ducts weeks, months, or even years after the surgery. The ERCP procedure is usually successful in removing the stone in these cases.

Nonsurgical treatment for gallstones

Nonsurgical approaches are used only in special situations—such as when a patient has a serious medical condition preventing surgery—and only for cholesterol stones. Stones commonly recur within 5 years in patients treated nonsurgically.

Do people need their gallbladder?

Fortunately, the gallbladder is an organ people can live without. Your liver produces enough bile to digest a normal diet. Once the gallbladder is removed, bile flows out of the liver through the hepatic ducts into the common bile duct and directly into the small intestine, instead of being stored in the gallbladder. Because now the bile flows into the small intestine more often, softer and more frequent stools can occur in about 1 percent of people. These changes are usually temporary, but talk with your health care provider if they persist.


Reference: NIDDK