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A gallstone is a solid crystal deposit that forms in the gallbladder, which is a pear-shaped organ that stores bile salts until they are needed to help digest fatty foods. Gallstones can migrate to other parts of the digestive tract and cause severe pain with life-threatening complications.


Gallstones vary in size and chemical structure. A gallstone may be as tiny as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. Eighty percent of gallstones are composed of cholesterol. They are formed when the liver produces more cholesterol than digestive juices can liquefy. The remaining 20% of gallstones are composed of calcium and an orange-yellow waste product called bilirubin. Bilirubin gives urine its characteristic color and sometimes causes jaundice.
Gallstones are the most common of all gallbladder problems. They are responsible for 90% of gallbladder and bile duct disease, and are the fifth most common reason for hospitalization of adults in the United States. Gallstones usually develop in adults between the ages of 20 and 50; about 20% of patients with gallstones are over 40. The risk of developing gallstones increases with age-at least 20% of people over 60 have a single large stone or as many as several thousand smaller ones. The gender ratio of gallstone patients changes with age. Young women are between two and six times more likely to develop gallstones than men in the same age group. In patients over 50, the condition affects men and women with equal frequency. Native Americans develop gallstones more often than any other segment of the population; Mexican-Americans have the second-highest incidence of this disease.


Gallstones can cause several different disorders. Cholelithiasis is defined as the presence of gallstones within the gallbladder itself. Choledocholithiasis is the presence of gallstones within the common bile duct that leads into the first portion of the small intestine (the duodenum). The stones in the duct may have been formed inside it or carried there from the gallbladder. These gallstones prevent bile from flowing into the duodenum. Ten percent of patients with gallstones have choledocholithiasis, which is sometimes called common-duct stones. Patients who don't develop infection usually recover completely from this disorder.
Cholecystitis is a disorder marked by inflammation of the gallbladder. It is usually caused by the passage of a stone from the gallbladder into the cystic duct, which is a tube that connects the gallbladder to the common bile duct. In 5-10% of cases, however, cholecystitis develops in the absence of gallstones. This form of the disorder is called acalculous cholecystitis. Cholecystitis causes painful enlargement of the gallbladder and is responsible for 10-25% of all gallbladder surgery. Chronic cholecystitis is most common in the elderly. The acute form is most likely to occur in middle-aged adults.
Cholesterolosis or cholesterol polyps is characterized by deposits of cholesterol crystals in the lining of the gallbladder. This condition may be caused by high levels of cholesterol or inadequate quantities of bile salts, and is usually treated by surgery.
Gallstone ileus, which results from a gallstone's blocking the entrance to the large intestine, is most common in elderly people. Surgery usually cures this condition.
Narrowing (stricture) of the common bile duct develops in as many as 5% of patients whose gallbladders have been surgically removed. This condition is characterized by inability to digest fatty foods and by abdominal pain, which sometimes occurs in spasms. Patients with stricture of the common bile duct are likely to recover after appropriate surgical treatment.

Causes and symptoms

Gallstones are caused by an alteration in the chemical composition of bile. Bile is a digestive fluid that helps the body absorb fat. Gallstones tend to run in families. In addition, high levels of estrogen, insulin, or cholesterol can increase a person's risk of developing them.
Pregnancy or the use of birth control pills can slow down gallbladder activity and increase the risk of gallstones. So can diabetes, pancreatitis, and celiac disease. Other factors influencing gallstone formation are:
  • infection
  • obesity
  • intestinal disorders
  • coronary artery disease or other recent illness
  • multiple pregnancies
  • a high-fat, low-fiber diet
  • smoking
  • heavy drinking
  • rapid weight loss
Gallbladder attacks usually follow a meal of rich, high-fat foods. The attacks often occur in the middle of the night, sometimes waking the patient with intense pain that ends in a visit to the emergency room. The pain of a gallbladder attack begins in the abdomen and may radiate to the chest, back, or the area between the shoulders. Other symptoms of gallstones include:
  • inability to digest fatty foods
  • low-grade fever
  • chills and sweating
  • nausea and vomiting
  • indigestion
  • gas
  • belching.
  • clay-colored bowel movements


Gallstones may be diagnosed by a family doctor, a specialist in digestive problems (a gastroenterologist), or a specialist in internal medicine. The doctor will first examine the patient's skin for signs of jaundice and feel (palpate) the abdomen for soreness or swelling. After the basic physical examination, the doctor will order blood counts or blood chemistry tests to detect evidence of bile duct obstruction and to rule out other illnesses that cause fever and pain, including stomach ulcers, appendicitis, and heart attacks.
More sophisticated procedures used to diagnose gallstones include:
  • Ultrasound imaging. Ultrasound has an accuracy rate of 96%.
  • Cholecystography (cholecystogram, gallbladder series, gallbladder x ray). This type of study shows how the gallbladder contracts after the patient has eaten a high-fat meal.
  • Fluoroscopy. This imaging technique allows the doctor to distinguish between jaundice caused by pancreatic cancer and jaundice caused by gallbladder or bile duct disorders.
Gallstones form in the gallbladder but can migrate to other parts of the body via the bile duct.
Gallstones form in the gallbladder but can migrate to other parts of the body via the bile duct.
(Illustration by Argosy Inc.)
  • Endoscopy (ERCP). ERCP uses a special dye to outline the pancreatic and common bile ducts and locate the position of the gallstones.
  • Radioisotopic scan. This technique reveals blockage of the cystic duct.


Watchful waiting

One-third of all patients with gallstones never experience a second attack. For this reason many doctors advise watchful waiting after the first episode. Reducing the amount of fat in the diet or following a sensible plan of gradual weight loss may be the only treatments required for occasional mild attacks. A patient diagnosed with gallstones may be able to manage more troublesome episodes by:
  • applying heat to the affected area
  • resting and taking occasional sips of water
  • using non-prescription forms of acetaminophen (Tylenol or Anacin-3)
A doctor should be notified if pain intensifies or lasts for more than three hours; if the patient's fever rises above 101 °F (38.3 °C); or if the skin or whites of the eyes turn yellow.


Surgical removal of the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) is the most common conventional treatment for recurrent attacks. Laparoscopic surgery, the technique most widely used, is a safe, effective procedure that involves less pain and a shorter recovery period than traditional open surgery. In this technique, the doctor makes a small cut (incision) in the patient's abdomen and removes the gallbladder through a long tube called a laparoscope.

Nonsurgical approaches

LITHOTRIPSY. Shock wave therapy (lithotripsy) uses high-frequency sound waves to break up the gallstones. The patient can then take bile salts to dissolve the fragments. Bile salt tablets are sometimes prescribed without lithotripsy to dissolve stones composed of cholesterol by raising the level of bile acids in the gallbladder. This approach requires long-term treatment, since it may take months or years for this method to dissolve a sizeable stone.
CONTACT DISSOLUTION. Contact dissolution can destroy gallstones in a matter of hours. This minimally invasive procedure involves using a tube (catheter) inserted into the abdomen to inject medication directly into the gallbladder.

Alternative treatment

Alternative therapies, like non-surgical treatments, may provide temporary relief of gallstone symptoms. Alternative approaches to the symptoms of gallbladder disorders include homeopathy, Chinese traditional herbal medicine, and acupuncture. Dietary changes may also help relieve the symptoms of gallstones. Since gallstones seem to develop more often in people who are obese, eating a balanced diet, exercising, and losing weight may help keep gallstones from forming.


Forty percent of all patients with gallstones have "silent gallstones" that produce no symptoms. Silent stones, discovered only when their presence is indicated by tests performed to diagnose other symptoms, do not require treatment.
Gallstone problems that require treatment can be surgically corrected. Although most patients recover, some develop infections that must be treated with antibiotics.
In rare instances, severe inflammation can cause the gallbladder to burst. The resulting infection can be fatal.


The best way to prevent gallstones is to minimize risk factors. In addition, a 1998 study suggests that vigorous exercise may lower a man's risk of developing gallstones by as much as 28%. The researchers have not yet determined whether physical activity benefits women to the same extent.

Key terms

Acalculous cholecystitis — Inflammation of the gallbladder that occurs without the presence of gallstones.
Bilirubin — A reddish-yellow waste product produced by the liver that colors urine and is involved in the formation of some gallstones.
Celiac disease — Inability to digest wheat protein (gluten), which causes weight loss, lack of energy, and pale, foul-smelling stools.
Cholecystectomy — Surgical removal of the gallbladder.
Cholecystitis — Inflammation of the gallbladder.
Choledocholithiasis — The presence of gallstones within the common bile duct.
Cholelithiasis — The presence of gallstones within the gallbladder.
Cholesterolosis — Cholesterol crystals or deposits in the lining of the gallbladder.
Common bile duct — The passage through which bile travels from the cystic duct to the small intestine.
Gallstone ileus — Obstruction of the large intestine caused by a gallstone that has blocked the intestinal opening.
Lithotripsy — A nonsurgical technique for removing gallstones by breaking them apart with high-frequency sound waves.



National Digestive Diseases Clearinghouse (NDDIC). 2 Information Way.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Building 31, Room 9A04, 31 Center Drive, MSC 2560, Bethesda, MD 208792-2560. (301) 496-3583.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Round, oval or faceted masses of cholesterol, chalk (calcium carbonate), calcium bilirubinate, or a mixture of these. Gallstones vary in size, from less than a millimetre to several centimetres, and are often present but unsuspected. They are commoner in women than in men and are more likely if the composition of the bile is abnormal or there is infection or blockage of outflow of bile. They tend to cause inflammation of the gall bladder (cholecystitis) and can be fragmented by LITHOTRIPSY.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005


calcareous concretions formed in the GALL BLADDER.
Collins Dictionary of Biology, 3rd ed. © W. G. Hale, V. A. Saunders, J. P. Margham 2005

Patient discussion about gallstones

Q. What arethe pros and cons of removingmy gallbladder due to gallstones

A. Pro - solves the problem (gallstones usually don't form in the absence of gall bladder

Cons - operation, with its complications: anesthesia, incision, hernia in the incision, infection etc.
Usually there are no chronic consequences for the absence of gallbladder.

However, this is only general advice - if you have any questions regarding this subject, you should consult a doctor (e.g. general surgeon).

You may read more here:

Q. What is a cholecystectomy and how is it done? My Doctor diagnosed me with gallstones and said I have to have a cholecystectomy surgery. What is this and how is it done?

A. Cholecystectomy is a surgery in which the gallbladder is removed. Don't be alarmed since you can live without your gallbladder. When the gallbladder is gone, bile flows directly from the liver into the small intestine.
You will probably have a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, which means a surgeon will make a small slit in your abdomen, then insert a tubelike instrument which has a camera and surgical instruments attached. This is used to take out the gallbladder with the stones inside it.
This procedure causes less pain than open surgery, is less likely to cause complications, and has a faster recovery time. This surgery is performed in an operating room and you will be under general anesthesia. It usually takes 20 minutes to one hour.

More discussions about gallstones
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References in periodicals archive ?
Gallstone ileus is a rare cause (1%-4% of cases) of mechanical small bowel obstruction.
Nuffield Health Cardiff and Vale Hospitals' Mr Elijah Ablorsu has extensive experience in managing and treating gallstone and all types of abdominal hernia and primarily specialises in the treatment of groin hernias and groin pain, using advanced keyhole techniques.
If your doctor believes that you may have gallstones, he or she will probably order an abdominal ultrasound and/or a computerized tomography (CT) scan.
The surgeon added that obesity, diabetes, irregular food habits, and cholesterol are reasons behind gallstone formation and is more common in women.
Gallstones are solid particles that develop in the gallbladder.
Faisal Ghani said that sometimes acute cholecystitis is caused by one or more gallstones getting stuck in the main tube leading to the intestine, called the common bile duct.
The patient has had weight loss, which increases the risk of gallstone formation, and the pain pattern is consistent with passage of a gallstone through the common bile duct.
The adverse events, in general, from unretrieved gallstones following LC are uncommon as reported by Manukyan et al.
Gallstones are small stones, usually made of cholesterol, that form in the gallbladder.
Cholecystitis a Risk Gallstone blockages can resolve themselves, with stones spontaneously moving out of the bile duct and into the intestine.
Grossly, the specimen consisted of several brownishgray nodules within the omentum measuring up to 6 mm in diameter with a cut surface closely resembling gallstones of cholesterol (Figure 1).
So I ignored all the symptoms of gallstones for three weeks.