Gallstones are hard, pebble-like deposits that form inside the gallbladder. Gallstones may be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball.
The cause of gallstones varies. There are two main types of gallstones:
Gallstones are more common in women, Native Americans and other ethnic groups, and people over age 40. Gallstones may also run in families.
The following also make you more likely to develop gallstones:
Many people with gallstones have never had any symptoms. The gallstones are often discovered when having a routine x-ray, abdominal surgery, or other medical procedure.
However, if a large stone blocks either the cystic duct or common bile duct (called choledocholithiasis), you may have a cramping pain in the middle to right upper abdomen. This is known as biliary colic. The pain goes away if the stone passes into the first part of the small intestine (the duodenum).
Symptoms that may occur include:
Additional symptoms that may occur with this disease include:
It is important to see a doctor if you have symptoms of gallstones. Gallstones are found in many people with gallbladder cancer.
Tests used to detect gallstones or gallbladder inflammation include:
Your doctor may order the following blood tests:
Some people have gallstones and have never had any symptoms. The gallstones may not be found until an ultrasound is done for another reason. Surgery may not be needed unless symptoms begin.
In general, patients who have symptoms will need surgery either right away, or after a short period of time.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) and a procedure called a sphincterotomy may be done to locate or treat gallstones in the common bile duct.
Medicines called chenodeoxycholic acids (CDCA) or ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA, ursodiol) may be given in pill form to dissolve cholesterol gallstones. However, they may take 2 years or longer to work, and the stones may return after treatment ends.
Rarely, chemicals are passed into the gallbladder through a catheter. The chemical rapidly dissolves cholesterol stones. This treatment is not used very often, because it is difficult to perform, the chemicals can be toxic, and the gallstones may return.
Electrohydraulic shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) of the gallbladder has also been used for selected patients who cannot have surgery. Because gallstones often come back in many patients, this treatment is not used very often anymore.
Gallstones develop in many people without causing symptoms. The chance of symptoms or complications from gallstones is low. Nearly all patients who have gallbladder surgery do not have their symptoms return (if the symptoms were actually caused by gallstones).
Blockage of the cystic duct or common bile duct by gallstones may cause the following problems:
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have:
There is no known way to prevent gallstones. If you have gallstone symptoms, eating a low-fat diet and losing weight may help you control symptoms.
Cholelithiasis; Gallbladder attack; Biliary colic; Gallstone attack; Bile calculus; Biliary calculus