Gallstones are pieces of stone-like material that form in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is located near the liver and stomach. The majority of gallstones are made up of cholesterol. The rest are made up of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a breakdown pigment of the blood product hemoglobin.
Biliary colic is the pain caused by a gallstone stuck in the bile duct (a tube that carries bile to the small intestine). Sometimes, a stone caught in the bile duct causes cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder). Cholangitis is inflammation of the bile duct caused by a gallstone or a bacterial infection.
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The gallbladder stores bile. This fluid is produced in the liver and used in the small intestine to digest fat. Bile contains cholesterol, water, bilirubin, and bile salts.
Gallstones can form under the following conditions:
These factors increase your chance of developing gallstones. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:
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:
If you have the following symptoms, see your doctor right away:
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical exam.
Tests may include:
Talk to your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include:
Your doctor may give you medicine to dissolve small stones. You may need to take medicine for months or even years.
Another procedure that may be used to treat gallstones is called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). ERCP uses a combination of endoscopy and x-rays to locate and remove gallstones before or during gallbladder surgery.
Last reviewed September 2012 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.