What are gallstones?

Gallstones are hard, stone-like deposits that can form in the gallbladder. The medical name for this condition is cholelithiasis. Cholelithiasis is very common in the United States, especially in women over age 40.

The cause of gallstones is not completely understood, but it is thought to have multiple factors. The gallbladder stores bile and releases it into the small intestine when it is needed for digestion. Gallstones can develop if the bile contains too much cholesterol or too much bilirubin (one of the components of bile), or if the gallbladder is dysfunctional and cannot release the bile.

Different types of gallstones form in cholelithiasis. The most common type, called a cholesterol stone, results from the presence of too much cholesterol in the bile. Another type of stone, called a pigment stone, is formed from excess bilirubin, a waste product created by the breakdown of the red blood cells in the liver. The size and number of gallstones vary among individuals; the gallbladder can form many small stones or one large stone.

The course of gallstones also varies among individuals. Some people with gallstones have no symptoms at all, while others may have severe abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, and complete blockage of the bile duct, posing a risk of infection. Gallstones can lead to cholecystitis, inflammation of the gallbladder. Acute gallstone attacks may be managed with intravenous medications. Chronic (long-term) occurrence or recurrence of gallstones is treated by surgical removal of the gallbladder.

Left untreated, gallstones can lead to serious complications such as tissue damage, tears in the gallbladder, and infection that spreads to other parts of the body. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms such as high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), severe abdominal pain, abdominal swelling, and nausea with or without vomiting.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for gallstones but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

SYMPTOMS

What are the symptoms of gallstones?

Gallstones may cause irritation and inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis) that can result in a number of symptoms. The symptoms can vary in intensity among individuals.... Read more about gallstonessymptoms

CAUSES

What causes gallstones?

In most cases, gallstones are caused by excessive amounts of cholesterol in the bile that is stored in the gallbladder. The cholesterol hardens to form stone-like substances. The presence of a stone or multiple stones in the gallbladder is known as cholelithiasis. Increased body weight and older age are associated with increased levels of cholesterol in the bile. Thus, gallstones are more likely to occur in women, in people who are obese, and in older individuals.... Read more about gallstonescauses

TREATMENTS

How are gallstones treated?

Treatment of gallstones begins with seeking medical care from your health care provider. To determine if you have gallstones, your health care provider will ask you to provide blood samples and undergo diagnostic tests.... Read more about gallstonestreatments

Medical Reviewer: All content has been reviewed by board-certified physicians under the direction of Rich Klasco, M.D., FACEP. Last Annual Review Date: May 2, 2011 Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Digestive System


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