What are Gallstones?
The gallbladder stores bile, a fluid made by the liver. Bile helps digest fats in the foods you eat. Gallstones form when certain substances in the bile crystallize and become solid. In some cases, the stones don’t cause any symptoms. In others, they irritate the walls of the gallbladder. More serious problems can occur if stones move into nearby ducts (such as the common bile duct) and cause blockages. This can block the flow of bile and lead to pain, nausea, and infection.
Gallbladder problems can cause painful attacks, often after a meal. Some people have only one attack. Others have many. Common symptoms include:
Severe, steady pain or aching in the upper right belly (abdomen), back, or right shoulder blade, lasting from 30 minutes to several hours
A dull ache beneath the ribs or breastbone
Nausea, upset stomach, or vomiting
A buildup of too much bile in the blood (jaundice), which causes yellowing of the skin and eyes, dark urine, and itching. Call your healthcare provider right away if this occurs.
Risk factors for gallstones
You are more at risk for gallstones if you:
Are a woman
Have a history of very fast (rapid) weight loss
Have certain intestinal diseases, such as Crohn’s disease
Have certain blood diseases, such as sickle cell anemia
Have a family background that includes Native Americans or Mexican Americans
Ultrasound is often used to look at the gallbladder and measure the size and exact location of gallstone.
Blood tests are used to measure liver enzymes and bilirubin. Both of these may be high if the gallstones are blocking bile flow or irritating the liver.
If your stones are not causing symptoms, you may choose to delay treatment. But if you’ve had one or more painful attacks, your healthcare provider will likely recommend removing your gallbladder. This prevents more stones from forming and causing attacks. It also helps prevent problems, such as stones passing into the ducts and causing infection or pancreatitis. After the gallbladder is removed, your liver will still make bile to aid digestion.
If you’re pregnant
Hormone changes during pregnancy can make bile more likely to form stones. If your gallbladder needs to be removed, your doctor will talk with you about the timing for surgery. In some cases, it can be delayed until after childbirth. In others, you may have surgery during pregnancy. This helps protect you and your baby’s health.
March 21, 2017
Adler, Liora C., MD,Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN,Image reviewed by StayWell medical illustration team.