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Quick Facts

Gallstones ˈgȯl-ˌstōn

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

What are gallstones?

Gallstones are clumps of solid material that can form in the gallbladder. Your gallbladder is the organ where your body stores bile (a fluid that helps break down fats in food) before it goes into your intestines.

  • Usually gallstones just sit in your gallbladder and don't cause problems

  • Sometimes, gallstones irritate the gallbladder (called cholecystitis) or block the duct that goes from the gallbladder to the intestine and cause upper belly pain that can last for hours

  • Doctors use ultrasound, a test that uses sound waves to create a picture, to find gallstones

  • Gallstones are more common in women and older people—in the United States about 1 in 5 people over 65 have gallstones

  • If gallstones cause pain or other problems, doctors may remove your gallbladder

What causes gallstones?

Gallstones are caused by certain substances collecting and forming clumps in the bile in your gallbladder.

These substances are more likely to form gallstones if your gallbladder is lazy and doesn't empty bile normally.

What are the risk factors for gallstones?

You have a higher chance of having gallstones if you:

  • Are a woman

  • Are over 65

  • Are Native American or Hispanic

  • Are obese

  • Have lost a lot of weight very quickly

  • Have family members who've had gallstones

  • Eat a diet high in fat and cholesterol

What are the symptoms of gallstones?

Most gallstones don't cause symptoms.

You may have symptoms if gallstones irritate your gallbladder or block the tube that leads from the gallbladder to the intestine. These symptoms include:

  • Severe pain in your upper belly area, usually on the right side

  • Feeling sick to your stomach and throwing up

  • Fever

  • Jaundice (when your skin and the whites of your eyes look yellow)

Symptoms may be worse after eating a heavy meal.

Your pain may be severe enough to send you to the hospital emergency room. But it may just go away and may or may not come back.

If the pain doesn't go away, you may have more serious problems, such as:

  • Cholecystitis or a blocked duct that needs surgery

  • A hole in the wall of your gallbladder

  • A problem with your liver, pancreas, or other organ in your belly

How can doctors tell if I have gallstones?

To find gallstones, doctors will:

  • Do an ultrasound of your belly area to create a picture of the gallbladder and other organs

  • Sometimes, do an MRI, a special test to create a more detailed picture of your organs

  • Do blood tests to check on your liver (liver function tests)

How do doctors treat gallstones?

Gallstones that don't cause symptoms usually don’t need to be treated.

To treat gallstones that cause pain, doctors may do surgery to remove your gallbladder. To do the surgery, doctors usually use laparoscopy. Doctors will make a small hole in your belly and insert a rigid viewing tube (laparoscope) to see inside your body. They make one or two other holes to insert tools that are needed to cut out your gallbladder. Your gallbladder is then removed through the small hole

Sometimes, when your condition is not an emergency and surgery would be risky, doctors may give you medicines to try to break up and slowly dissolve your gallstones. These medicines work only some of the time.

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