Also known as cholelithotomy, gallstone removal is the medical procedure that rids the gallbladder of calculus buildup.
The gallbladder is not a vital organ. Its function is to store bile, concentrate it, and release it during digestion. Bile is supposed to retain all of its chemicals in solution, but commonly one of them crystallizes and forms sand, gravel, and finally stones.
The chemistry of gallstones is complex and interesting. Like too much sugar in solution, chemicals in bile will form crystals as the gallbladder draws water out of the bile. The solubility of these chemicals is based on the concentration of three chemicals, not just one—bile acids, phospholipids, and cholesterol. If the chemicals are out of balance, one or the other will not remain in solution. Certain people, in particular the Pima tribe of Native Americans in Arizona, have a genetic predisposition to forming gallstones. Scandinavians also have a higher than average incidence of this disease. Dietary fat and cholesterol are also implicated in their formation. Overweight women in their middle years constitute the vast majority of patients with gallstones in every group.
As the bile crystals aggregate to form stones, they move about, eventually occluding the outlet and preventing the gallbladder from emptying. This creates symptoms. It also results in irritation, inflammation, and sometimes infection of the gallbladder. The pattern is usually one of intermittent obstruction due to stones moving in and out of the way. All the while the gallbladder is becoming more scarred. Sometimes infection fills it with pus-a serious complication.
On occasion a stone will travel down the cystic duct into the common bile duct and get stuck there. This will back bile up into the liver as well as the gallbladder. If the stone sticks at the Ampulla of Vater, the pancreas will also be plugged and will develop pancreatitis. These stones can cause a lot of trouble.
Bile is composed of several waste products of metabolism, all of which are supposed to remain in liquid form. The complex chemistry of the liver depends on many chemical processes, which depend in turn upon the chemicals in the diet and the genes that direct those processes. There are greater variations in the output of chemical waste products than there is allowance for their cohabitation in the bile. Incompatible mixes result in the formation of solids.
Gallstones will cause the sudden onset of pain in the upper abdomen. Pain will last for 30 minutes to several hours. Pain may move to the right shoulder blade. Nausea with or without vomiting may accompany the pain.
Individuals suffering from sickle cell anemia, children, and patients with large stones may seek other treatments.
Surgery to remove the entire gallbladder with all its stones is usually the best treatment, provided the
patient is able to tolerate the procedure. Over the past decade, a new technique of removing the gallbladder using a laparoscope has resulted in quicker recovery and much smaller surgical incisions than the six-inch gash under the right ribs that used to be standard. Not everyone is a candidate for this approach.
If a stone is lodged in the bile ducts, additional surgery must be done to remove it. After surgery, the surgeon will ordinarily leave in a drain to collect bile until the system is healed. The drain can also be used to inject contrast material and take x rays during or after surgery.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatoscopy (ercp)
A procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatoscopy (ERCP) allows the removal of some bile duct stones through the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, duodenum, and biliary system without the need for surgical incisions. ERCP can also be used to inject contrast agents into the biliary system, providing superbly detailed pictures.
Rare circumstances require different techniques. Patients too ill for a complete cholecystectomy (removal of the gallbladder), sometimes only the stones are removed, a procedure called cholelithotomy. But that does not cure the problem. The liver will go on making faulty bile, and stones will reform, unless the composition of the bile is altered.
For patients who cannot receive the laparoscopic procedure, there is also a nonsurgical treatment in which ursodeoxycholic acid is used to dissolve the gallstones. Extracorporeal shock-wave lithotripsy has also been successfully used to break up gallstones. During the procedure, high-amplitude sound waves target the stones, slowly breaking them up.
There are a number of imaging studies that identify gallbladder disease, but most gallstones will not show up on conventional x rays. That requires contrast agents given by mouth that are excreted into the bile. Ultrasound is very useful and can be enhanced by doing it through an endoscope in the stomach. CT (computed tomography scans) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanning are not used routinely but are helpful in detecting common duct stones and complications.
Without a gallbladder, stones rarely reform. Patients who have continued symptoms after their gallbladder is removed may need an ERCP to detect residual stones or damage to the bile ducts caused by the stones before they were removed. Once in a while the Ampulla of Vater is too tight for bile to flow through and causes symptoms until it is opened up.
Bilhartz, Lyman E., and Jay D. Horton. "Gallstone Disease and Its Complications." In Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, edited by Mark Feldman, et al. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1998.
Cholecystectomy — Surgical removal of the gallbladder.
Cholelithotomy — Surgical incision into the gallbladder to remove stones.
Contrast agent — A substance that causes shadows on x rays (or other images of the body).
Endoscope — One of several instruments designed to enter body cavities. They combine viewing and operating capabilities.
Jaundice — A yellow color of the skin and eyes due to excess bile that is not removed by the liver.
Laparoscopy — Surgery through pencil-sized viewing instruments and tools so that incisions need be less than half an inch long.