The gallbladder is located on the liver and near the stomach. Gallstones form when cholesterol or bile stored in the gallbladder hardens into pieces of stone-like material. Gallstones are made of cholesterol salts and bilirubin salts. Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. The gallbladder can develop just one large stone, hundreds of tiny stones, or almost any combination.
Gallstones are caused when bile or cholesterol crystalizes into gallstones.
Gallstones can form under the following conditions:
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:
Certain medications can increase your risk of gallstones, including:
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:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with blood tests.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
Talk to your doctor about the best treatment plan for you.
You may be prescribed:
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.
American Liver Foundation
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
Canadian Liver Foundation
Gallstones. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated October 23, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2013.
Gallstones. American Academy of Family Physicians' FamilyDoctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/gallstones.html. Updated July 2010. Accessed December 5, 2013.
Gallstones. National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases website. Available at: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/gallstones. Updated November 27, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2013.
Last reviewed December 2013 by Michael Woods, 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.