- The gallbladder is a small saclike organ in the upper right part of the abdomen. It is located under the liver, just below the front rib cage on the right side.
- The gallbladder is part of the biliary system, which includes the liver and thepancreas.
- The biliary system, among other functions, produces bile and digestive enzymes.
Bile is a fluid made by the liver to help in the digestion of fats.
- It contains several different substances, including cholesterol and bilirubin, a waste product of normal breakdown of blood cells in the liver.
- Bile is stored in the gallbladder until needed.
- When we eat a high-fat, high-cholesterol meal, the gallbladder contracts and injects bile into the small intestine via a small tube called the common bile duct. The bile then assists in the digestive process.
There are two types of gallstones: 1) cholesterol stones and 2) pigment stones.
- Patients with cholesterol stones are more common in the United States, making up approximately 80% of all gallstones. They form when there is too much cholesterol in the bile.
- Pigment stones form when there is excess bilirubin in the bile.
Gallstones can be any size, from tiny as a grain of sand to large as a golf ball.
- Although it is common to have many smaller stones, a single larger stone or any combination of sizes is possible.
- If stones are very small, they may form a sludge.
- Whether gallstones cause symptoms depends partly on their size and their number, although no combination of number and size can predict whether symptoms will occur or the severity of the symptoms.
Gallstones within the gallbladder often cause no problems. If there are many or they are large, they may cause pain when the gallbladder responds to a fatty meal. They also may cause problems if they move out of the gallbladder.
- If their movement leads to blockage of any of the ducts connecting the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas with the intestine, serious complications may result.
- Blockage of a duct can cause bile or digestive enzymes to be trapped in the duct.
- This can cause inflammation and ultimately severe pain, infection, and organ damage.
- If these conditions go untreated, they can even cause death.
Up to 20% of adults in the United States may have gallstones, yet only 1%-3% develop symptoms.
- Hispanics, Native Americans, and Caucasians of Northern European descent are most likely to be at risk for gallstones. African Americans are at lower risk.
- Gallstones are most common among overweight, middle-aged women, but the elderly and men are more likely to experience more serious complications from gallstones.
- Women who have been pregnant are more likely to develop gallstones. The same is true for women taking birth control pills or on hormone/estrogen therapy as this can mimic pregnancy in terms of hormone levels.
Gallstones occur when bile forms solid particles (stones) in the gallbladder.
- The stones form when the amount of cholesterol or bilirubin in the bile is high.
- Other substances in the bile may promote the formation of stones.
- Pigment stones form most often in people with liver disease or blood disease, who have high levels of bilirubin.
- Poor muscle tone may keep the gallbladder from emptying completely. The presence of residual bile may promote the formation of gallstones.
Risk factors for the formation of cholesterol gallstones include the following:
- female gender,
- being overweight,
- losing a lot of weight quickly on a "crash" or starvation diet, or
- taking certain medications such as birth control pills or cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Gallstones are the most common cause of gallbladder disease.
- As the stones mix with liquid bile, they can block the outflow of bile from the gallbladder. They can also block the outflow of digestive enzymes from the pancreas.
- If the blockage persists, these organs can become inflamed. Inflammation of the gallbladder is called cholecystitis. Inflammation of the pancreas is calledpancreatitis.
- Contraction of the blocked gallbladder causes increased pressure, swelling, and, at times, infection of the gallbladder.
The role of diet in the formation of gallstones is not clear.
- We do know that anything that increases the level of cholesterol in the blood increases the risk of gallstones.
- It is reasonable to assume that a diet with large amounts of cholesterol and other fats increases the risk of gallstones.
When the gallbladder or gallbladder ducts become inflamed or infected as the result of stones, the pancreas frequently becomes inflamed too.
- This inflammation can cause destruction of the pancreas and severeabdominal pain.
- Untreated gallstone disease can become life-threatening, particularly if the gallbladder becomes infected or if the pancreas becomes severely inflamed.
Most people with gallstones (60%-80%) have no symptoms. In fact, they are usually unaware that they have gallstones unless symptoms occur. These "silent gallstones" usually require no treatment.
Symptoms usually occur as complications develop. The most common symptom is pain in the right upper part of the abdomen. Because the pain comes in episodes, it is often referred to as an "attack."
- Attacks may occur every few days, weeks, or months; they may even be separated by years.
- The pain usually starts within 30 minutes after a fatty or greasy meal.
- The pain is usually severe, dull, and constant, and can last from one to five hours.
- It may radiate to the right shoulder or back.
- It occurs frequently at night and may awaken the person from sleep.
- The pain may make the person want to move around to seek relief, but many patients prefer to lay still and wait for the attack to subside.
Other common symptoms of gallstones include the following:
- nausea and vomiting,
- indigestion, belching, bloating,
- intolerance for fatty or greasy foods, and
- jaundice (yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes).
Warning signs of a serious problem are fever, jaundice, and persistent pain.
When to Seek Medical Care
If a person has an episode or recurring episodes of abdominal pain 30 minutes to one hour following meals, call a health care practitioner for an appointment.
Go to a hospital emergency department if the person has this abdominal pain with any of the following conditions:
the abdominal pain cannot be controlled with over-the-counter pain medication;
the person begins vomiting or develops a fever, chills, or sweats; or
the person has jaundice.
Exams and Tests
Upon hearing the patient's symptoms, the health care practitioner will probably suspect gallstones. Because the symptoms of gallbladder disease can resemble those of other serious conditions, he or she will ask the patient's questions and examine them to try to confirm this diagnosis and rule out other conditions.
There is no lab test that can identify gallstones.
- Blood will be taken for tests that can help to determine if the gallbladder is obstructed, if the liver or pancreas is inflamed or not functioning properly, or if the patient has an infection.
- If you are a woman, the blood may also be tested to check for a possible pregnancy,
- Urine may be tested to rule out kidney infection. Kidney infections can cause abdominal pain similar to that caused by gallstones.
Ultrasound is the best test to examine the gallbladder for stones.
- Ultrasound uses painless sound waves to create images of organs.
- Ultrasound examinations are very good at seeing abnormalities in the biliary system, including stones or signs of inflammation or infection.
- This is the same technique used to look at a fetus in a pregnant woman.
- Finding gallstones by ultrasound does not diagnose gallbladder disease. The doctor has to correlate the ultrasound findings with the patient's symptoms.
An alternative to ultrasound is an oral cholecystogram (OCG).
- An X-ray is taken of the gallbladder after the patient swallow pills containing a safe, temporary dye.
- The dye helps the gallbladder and gallstones show up better on the X-ray.
Both ultrasound and OCG can detect gallstones in the gallbladder about 95% of the time.
- Ultrasound is usually the first choice because it is completely noninvasive and involves no exposure to radiation.
- If either test gives an uncertain result, another test usually is necessary.
These tests are the alternatives to ultrasound and OCG. They are better choices if gallstones have left the gallbladder and moved into the ducts.
- Cholescintigraphy (HIDA scan): This is a test in which a solution is injected into an IV line in the patient's arm. The liquid is absorbed by the liver, then passed on to be stored in the gallbladder (much like bile). The solution contains a harmless radioactive marker, which is seen by a special camera. If the gallbladder is inflamed or blocked by gallstones, none of the marker is seen in the gallbladder.
- CT scan: This test is similar to an X-ray, however more detailed. It shows the gallbladder and the biliary ducts and can detect gallstones, blockages, and other complications.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): A thin, flexible endoscope is used to view parts of the patient's biliary system. The patient is sedated, and the tube is passed through the mouth and stomach and into the small intestine. The device then injects a temporary dye into the biliary ducts. The dye makes it easy to see any stones in the ducts when X-rays are taken. Sometimes a stone can be removed during this procedure.
A chest X-ray may be performed to make sure there are no other reasons for the abdominal pain.
- Sometimes problems in the chest (such as pneumonia ) can cause pain in the upper abdomen.
- Occasionally the chest X-ray can also show stones in the gallbladder.
As most gallstones are asymptomatic, many times gallstones are diagnosed when the patient undergoes a test for another reason.
There is no permanent medical cure for gallstones. Although there are medical measures that can be taken to remove stones or relieve symptoms, they are only temporary. If a patient has symptoms from gallstones, surgical removal of the gallbladder is the best treatment. Asymptomatic gallstones usually do not require treatment.
Self-Care at Home
After a diagnosis of gallstones, the patient may choose not to have surgery or may not be able to have surgery right away. There are measures the patient can take to relieve the symptoms to include:
- intake of only clear liquids to give the gallbladder a rest,
- avoid fatty or greasy meals, and
- take acetaminophen (Tylenol, etc.) for pain.
Call a health care practitioner if symptoms worsen or if new symptoms appear. Abdominal pain with vomiting, fever, or jaundice warrants an immediate visit to a doctor's office or a hospital emergency department.
There are medical treatments for gallstones, but none is effective as surgery.
Extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy(ESWL): A device that generates shock waves is used to break gallstones up into tiny pieces.
- These tiny pieces can pass through the biliary system without causing blockages.
- This is usually done in conjunction with ERCP to remove some stones.
- Many people who undergo this treatment suffer attacks of intense pain in the right upper part of the abdomen after treatment.
- The effectiveness of ESWL in treating gallstones has not been fully established.
Dissolving stones: Drugs made from bile acids are used to dissolve the gallstones.
- It may take months or even years for the gallstones to all dissolve.
- The stones often come back after this treatment.
- These drugs work best for cholesterol stones.
- They cause mild diarrhea in many people.
- This treatment is usually offered only to people who are not able to have surgery.
If an individual goes to an emergency department, an IV line may be started, and pain medication and antibiotics may be given through the IV.
If the patient's health permits it, the health care practitioner will probably recommend surgery to remove the gallbladder and the stones. Surgical removal helps prevent future episodes of abdominal pain and more dangerous complications such as inflammation of the pancreas and infection of the gallbladder and liver.
- If there is no infection or inflammation of the pancreas, the operation to remove the gallbladder can be performed immediately or within the next several days.
- If there is inflammation of the pancreas or infection of the gallbladder, the pateint will most likely be admitted to the hospital to receive IV fluid and possibly IV antibiotics for several days prior to the operation
Many people who have gallbladder disease are understandably concerned about having their gallbladder removed. They wonder how they can function without a gallbladder.
- Fortunately, you can live without your gallbladder.
- Living without a gallbladder does not require a change in diet.
- When the gallbladder is gone, bile flows directly from the liver into the small intestine.
- Because there is nowhere to store bile, sometimes bile flows into the intestine when it is not needed. This does not cause a problem for most people, but causes mild diarrhea in about 1% of patients.
Laparoscopic removal: Most gallbladders are removed by laparoscopic cholecystectomy. The gallbladder is removed through a small slit in the abdomen using small tube-like instruments.
- The tube-like instruments have a camera and surgical instruments attached, which are used to take out the gallbladder with the stones inside it.
- This procedure causes less pain than open surgery.
- It is less likely to cause complications, and has a faster recovery time.
- A laparoscopic procedure is preferred if it is appropriate for the patient.
- The procedure is performed in an operating room with the patient under general anesthesia.
- It usually takes 20 minutes to one hour.
- A general surgeon performs the operation.
- In some cases a laparoscopic procedure is started and then changed to an open abdominal procedure (see below).
Open removal: The gallbladder is sometimes removed through a 3 to 6 inchincision in the right upper abdomen.
- The open procedure usually is used only when laparoscopic surgery is not feasible for a specific person.
- Common reasons for doing an open procedure are infection in the biliary tract and scars from previous surgeries.
- About 5% of all gallbladder removals in the United States are done as open procedures.
- This procedure is performed in the operating room with the patient under general anesthesia.
- It usually takes 45-90 minutes.
- A general surgeon performs the operation.
Occasionally, ERCP is done just before or during surgery to locate any gallstones that have left the gallbladder and are located elsewhere in the biliary system. These can be removed at the same time as surgery, eliminating the risk that they might cause a complication in the future. ERCP also may be performed after surgery if a gallstone is later found in the biliary tract. Sometimes ERCP is done without surgery, for example in people who are too frail or ill to undergo surgery.
If the gallbladder has been removed, office visits to the general surgeon are required to check the operation sites one to three times following the operation. No other follow-up or long-term care is required.
A low-fat, low-cholesterol diet can prevent symptoms of gallstones but cannot prevent formation of stones. It is not known why some people form stones and others do not
If gallstones block one of the biliary ducts, the result is inflammation and swelling of the organs "upstream" of the blocked duct.
- This complication alone can cause symptoms and warrants treatment, possibly surgery.
- If untreated, it can lead to more serious conditions such as infection and damage to the gallbladder, liver, and pancreas.
- If these organs sustain enough damage, they can no longer carry out their normal functions. This is a life-threatening complication.
If a patient has surgery, you should know the following:
- A person who has had laparoscopic surgery to remove the gallbladder may leave the hospital 12-48 hours after surgery and return to full activities within three weeks.
- If open surgery was required to remove the gallbladder, recovery takes a little longer. The person may leave the hospital within three to seven days and could resume normal activity after a six week recovery period.
- The most common complication of surgery is damage to the biliary tract. If bile leaks out of the biliary system, it can cause an infection.
If a person chooses not to have their gallbladder removed, it is likely you will have recurring abdominal pain and possibly complications.
Synonyms and Keywords
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Viewer Comments: Gallstones - Symptoms Experienced
When I was pregnant with my first child, I started having severe pain in my upper right abdomen. I mentioned in to my doctor and she said that it was probably indigestion. I had an "attack" about every two weeks during my pregnancy. The pain would wake me in the middle of the night. I would feel as if I needed to go to the bathroom or vomit. The attacks usually lasted anywhere between 30 minutes to two hours and usually involved me vomiting to get any pain relief. After I had my daughter, I didn’t have any problems for about two months. Then all of a sudden, they came back, at least one a week. I soon found out that I was pregnant again. So again I chalked it up to severe indigestion and started watching my diet. Over time, I realized and was able to eliminate certain foods that caused me problems: milk, hot dogs (processed foods), soda, chocolate, peanut butter, and many others. I mentioned it to my doctor again and asked her why those foods would be causing indigestion. She said that I may have gallbladder issues. After I had my son, again, all the pain went away for about six weeks. Then it all came back again. I went to the doctor and had an ultrasound performed, and they confirmed that I have gallstones. I was referred to a surgeon.Published: December 01 ::
Looking backwards from surgery date to symptoms, I had jaundice, uncontrollable itching, nausea, chest pain (that felt like someone took a belt and cinched it under my breasts as tight as they could), abdominal pain from under my breasts down to my lower abdomen, back pain from under my shoulder blades to my spine and then other times I would feel perfectly normal. Of all the symptoms, the only one that seemed to be consistent was the itching.Published: August 27 ::
The first episode began gradually with a burning pain and a lot of pressure just beneath my ribs on the right side, straight down from my breast. The pain and pressure got worse over the course of an hour until I could hardly move or take a deep breath. When I tried to manipulate the area (thinking it must be trapped gas) I could feel a hardening and enlarging of (what I now know was) my gallbladder. After a couple of hours, the pain slowly subsided. The second episode began the same way, same spot, but this time it radiated to my back. I tried to burp, thinking it would relieve the horrible pain, and I immediately and violently vomited until my throat bled. Two days later, an ultrasound showed two small gallstones.Published: August 27 ::
This article is very informative, as are the comments from patients. I have suspected I may have gallbladder issues for some time now but never could find a clear description of the symptoms. I am quite sure now. I was always afraid of the possibility of having my gallbladder removed. I know now that I was misinformed and it will not be as bad as I thought if it tu