Gallstones occur when bile or cholesterol hardens and crystalizes in your gallbladder and bile ducts.
Gallstones can form under the following conditions:
- Too much cholesterol in the bile
- Too much bilirubin
- Not enough bile salts
- When the gallbladder does not empty completely or often enough
We can perform gallbladder surgery in two ways:
- Camera-assisted gallbladder surgery (laparoscopic cholecystectomy) removes the gallbladder through several small incisions in the abdomen. To view the gallbladder, a small, lighted tube with a camera is inserted into one of the incisions. Surgical instruments are used to remove the gallbladder through one of the other incisions.
- Open gallbladder surgery (cholecystectomy) removes the gallbladder through a large incision in the abdomen. This is necessary if there is an infection in the abdomen or a great deal of scar tissue.
We can treat gallstones with:
- Over-the-counter or prescription medication to control pain
- Bile salt tablets to dissolve gallstones; these medications may need to be taken for months or years until the stones are dissolved
Removal by Endoscopy
We offer endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), a procedure that doesn't require surgery, to remove gallstones. ERCP uses a combination of endoscopy and X-rays to locate and remove gallstones before or during gallbladder surgery.
How Do You Know You Have Gallstones?
Many people have gallstones without symptoms, called silent gallstones. In some cases, these are treated.
Gallstones may cause pain in the upper abdomen. This is sometimes called an attack because it begins suddenly, often after a fatty meal. The pain is severe and may last for 30 minutes or several hours.
Other symptoms include:
- Intermittent pain on the right, below the rib cage; the pain may spread
- Bloating, nausea, and vomiting
- Belching, gas, and indigestion
If you have the following symptoms, see your doctor right away:
- Abdominal pain
- Low-grade fever
- Yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes
- Clay-colored stools
Tools for Diagnosis
To confirm your condition, we'll use imaging scans like:
- Abdominal X-ray
- Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
- Cholecystogram or cholescintigraphy
Are You at Risk for Gallstones?
People who are older than 60 are at increased risk for gallstones. Women between 20-60 years old and those with high estrogen levels are also at increased risk. People of Native American, Mexican American and Northern European descent are also at increased risk.
Other factors that may increase your risk of gallstones include:
- Problems that affect the gallbladder such as:
- Inflammation of the lining of the gallbladder
- Poor gallbladder function
- Diseases of the gallbladder and ducts
- Previous gallstones
- Dietary factors such as a:
- Rapid weight loss and fasting
- High fat diet
- Certain conditions such as diabetes or Crohn's disease
- Blockage in the biliary tract
- History of intestinal problems
- Blood diseases that increase breakdown of hemoglobin and therefore bile production, including sickle cell anemia
- Gastric bypass surgery
- Metabolic syndrome
- Lack of physical activity
Certain medications can increase your risk of gallstones, including:
- Thiazide diuretics
- Cholesterol-lowering drugs — fibrates
How to Prevent Gallstones
To reduce your chance of getting gallstones:
Maintain a healthy weight.
- Avoid rapid weight loss diets.
- Exercise regularly.
- Eat a diet low in saturated fat.
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods.
Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.