Overview

What Are Gallstones? 

What Are Gallstones? 

Gallstones are hard particles that develop in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ located in the upper right abdomen—the area between the chest and hips—below the liver.

Gallstones can range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball. The gallbladder can develop a single large gallstone, hundreds of tiny stones, or both small and large stones. Gallstones can cause sudden pain in the upper right abdomen. This pain, called a gallbladder attack or biliary colic, occurs when gallstones block the ducts of the biliary tract.

What Causes Gallstones?

Imbalances in the substances that make up bile cause gallstones. Gallstones may form if bile contains too much cholesterol, too much bilirubin, or not enough bile salts. Scientists do not fully understand why these imbalances occur. Gallstones also may form if the gallbladder does not empty completely or often enough.

The two types of gallstones are cholesterol and pigment stones:

  • Cholesterol stones, usually yellow-green in color, consist primarily of hardened cholesterol. In the United States, more than 80 percent of gallstones are cholesterol stones.
  • Pigment stones, dark in color, are made of bilirubin.

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How Are Gallstones Treated?

If gallstones are not causing symptoms, treatment is usually not needed. However, if a person has a gallbladder attack or other symptoms, a health care provider will usually recommend treatment. A person may be referred to a gastroenterologist—a doctor who specializes in digestive diseases—for treatment. If a person has had one gallbladder attack, more episodes will likely follow.

The usual treatment for gallstones is surgery to remove the gallbladder. If a person cannot undergo surgery, nonsurgical treatments may be used to dissolve cholesterol gallstones. A health care provider may use ERCP to remove stones in people who cannot undergo surgery or to remove stones from the common bile duct in people who are about to have gallbladder removal surgery.

Surgery

Surgery to remove the gallbladder, called cholecystectomy, is one of the most common operations performed on adults in the United States.

The gallbladder is not an essential organ, which means a person can live normally without a gallbladder. Once the gallbladder is removed, bile flows out of the liver through the hepatic and common bile ducts and directly into the duodenum, instead of being stored in the gallbladder.

Surgeons perform two types of cholecystectomy:

  • Laparoscopic cholecystectomy. In a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, the surgeon makes several tiny incisions in the abdomen and inserts a laparoscope—a thin tube with a tiny video camera attached. The camera sends a magnified image from inside the body to a video monitor, giving the surgeon a close-up view of organs and tissues. While watching the monitor, the surgeon uses instruments to carefully separate the gallbladder from the liver, bile ducts, and other structures. Then the surgeon removes the gallbladder through one of the small incisions. Patients usually receive general anesthesia.

    Most cholecystectomies are performed with laparoscopy. Many laparoscopic cholecystectomies are performed on an outpatient basis, meaning the person is able to go home the same day. Normal physical activity can usually be resumed in about a week.

  • Open cholecystectomy. An open cholecystectomy is performed when the gallbladder is severely inflamed, infected, or scarred from other operations. In most of these cases, open cholecystectomy is planned from the start. However, a surgeon may perform an open cholecystectomy when problems occur during a laparoscopic cholecystectomy. In these cases, the surgeon must switch to open cholecystectomy as a safety measure for the patient.

    To perform an open cholecystectomy, the surgeon creates an incision about 4 to 6 inches long in the abdomen to remove the gallbladder. Patients usually receive general anesthesia. Recovery from open cholecystectomy may require some people to stay in the hospital for up to a week. Normal physical activity can usually be resumed after about a month.

A small number of people have softer and more frequent stools after gallbladder removal because bile flows into the duodenum more often. Changes in bowel habits are usually temporary; however, they should be discussed with a health care provider.

Though complications from gallbladder surgery are rare, the most common complication is injury to the bile ducts. An injured common bile duct can leak bile and cause a painful and possibly dangerous infection. One or more additional operations may be needed to repair the bile ducts. Bile duct injuries occur in less than one percent of cholecystectomies.

Points to Remember

  • If gallstones are not causing symptoms, treatment is usually not needed. However, if a person has a gallbladder attack or other symptoms, a health care provider will usually recommend treatment.
  • The usual treatment for gallstones is surgery to remove the gallbladder. If a person cannot undergo surgery, nonsurgical treatments may be used to dissolve cholesterol gallstones. A health care provider may use endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) to remove stones in people who cannot undergo surgery or to remove stones from the common bile duct in people who are about to have gallbladder removal surgery.
  • The gallbladder is not an essential organ, which means a person can live normally without a gallbladder. Once the gallbladder is removed, bile flows out of the liver through the hepatic and common bile ducts and directly into the duodenum, instead of being stored in the gallbladder.*

*Courtesy: This content is provided and made available by National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.