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Home > Health Library > Gallstones
Gallstones are stones that form in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small sac located just under the liver. It stores bile released by the liver. Bile helps you digest fats. Gallstones can be smaller than a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball.
Gallstones form when cholesterol and other things found in bile make stones. They can also form if the gallbladder doesn't empty as it should.
Gallstones can also form in the common bile duct or cystic duct. These tubes carry bile from the gallbladder and the liver to the small intestine.
Gallstones form when cholesterol and other substances found in bile make stones. They can also form if the gallbladder doesn't empty as it should. People who are overweight or who are trying to lose weight quickly are more likely to get gallstones.
Most people who have gallstones don't have symptoms. If you have symptoms, you likely will have pain in your stomach or the upper right part of your belly. Pain may spread to your right upper back or shoulder blade area. When gallstones block a bile duct, you may have pain with fever and chills.
Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about when the pain in your belly started, where it is, and if it comes and goes or is always there. If your doctor thinks you have gallstones, he or she may order an ultrasound of the belly to confirm the diagnosis.
If you don't have symptoms, you probably don't need treatment. If your first gallstone attack causes pain, your doctor may tell you to take pain medicine and wait to see if the pain goes away. If you have more attacks, you may want to have your gallbladder removed.
There is no sure way to prevent gallstones. But you can reduce your risk of forming gallstones that can cause symptoms.
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Gallstones develop when cholesterol and other substances in the bile form crystals that become hard stones in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small sac located just under the liver. Gallstones can form when too much cholesterol is in the bile or when the gallbladder does not empty properly.
Your chances of forming gallstones that can cause symptoms are higher if you:
You may also be increasing your risk for gallstones if you:
Most people who have gallstones don't have symptoms. When symptoms occur, they can include:
Pain can last 15 minutes to 24 hours. Continuous pain for 1 to 5 hours is common. The pain may begin at night and be severe enough to wake you. Pain often starts after eating food that is high in fat. The pain usually makes it hard to get comfortable. Moving around doesn't make the pain go away.
The progression of gallstones depends on whether you have symptoms. Most people with gallstones have no symptoms and do not need treatment.
The most common problem caused by gallstones occurs when a gallstone blocks the cystic duct that drains the gallbladder. It often causes bouts of pain that come and go as the gallbladder contracts and expands. The bouts of pain are often severe and steady. The pain can last from 15 minutes to up to 6 hours. And the pain may get worse after a meal. Symptoms usually improve within a few days.
If the pain is severe or if you have had gallbladder pain before, you may need to have your gallbladder removed.
In rare cases, gallstones can cause pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. Gallstones back up the flow of digestive enzymes made by the pancreas. Pancreatitis may cause sudden, severe belly pain, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, and fever.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you:
Call your doctor now if you have:
If you have symptoms of gallstones but no fever, chills, or yellowing of your skin or the white part of your eyes, you may still need to be checked and treated. Schedule an appointment with your doctor.
Watchful waiting means taking a wait-and-see approach. You and your doctor watch your symptoms or condition to see if you need treatment. It's often the first approach to a first attack of gallstone pain.
Most people who have gallstones don't know it because they don't have symptoms.
If you have symptoms, your doctor will do a physical exam. He or she will ask you questions about when the pain in your belly started, where it is, and if it comes and goes or is always there. If your doctor thinks you have gallstones, your doctor may order tests to confirm the diagnosis. Tests might include:
Courtesy of Intermountain Medical Imaging, Boise, Idaho.
Figure 1 shows a normal gallbladder on ultrasound. Figure 2 shows a large gallstone in the gallbladder.
If you don't have symptoms, you probably don't need treatment.
If you do have symptoms and your first gallstone attack causes pain, your doctor may tell you to take pain medicine and wait to see if the pain goes away. You may never have another attack. Waiting to see what happens usually won't cause problems.
If you have a second attack, you may want to have your gallbladder removed. A second attack means you're more likely to have future attacks. Many people have their gallbladders removed. And the body works fine without a gallbladder.
Surgery to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) is the treatment of choice for gallstones that cause moderate to severe pain or other symptoms. Symptoms usually don't return after the gallbladder is removed. If you have certain health problems, surgery may also be done even if you don't have symptoms. In a small number of cases, surgery may be done to prevent other problems from gallstones.
Laparoscopic surgery is the most common way to remove the gallbladder. A doctor puts a lighted viewing tool and surgical tools into your belly through several small cuts. People who have this surgery usually recover in about 1 week.
Open surgery involves one larger cut. The gallbladder is removed through this cut. It may be done if laparoscopic surgery isn't an option. Or it may be done when other problems are found during laparoscopic surgery. This type of surgery requires a longer recovery period. It also causes more pain.
Current as of:
February 10, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineArvydas D. Vanagunas MD - Gastroenterology
Current as of: February 10, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Arvydas D. Vanagunas MD - Gastroenterology
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