Gallstones are stone-like objects that form in the gallbladder
or bile ducts. Gallstones can be tiny (the size of a grain of sand), or may be
as large as a golf ball. Depending on the symptoms, people who have gallstones
may not need treatment, or they may need to take medication or have surgery to
remove their gallbladder. If the stones are in the bile ducts, they usually need
to be removed by endoscopy.
What is the gallbladder?
The gallbladder is an organ that resembles a small pear. It is
located under the liver on the right side of the abdomen. The function of the
gallbladder is to store and dispense bile, a fluid that is produced by the liver
and helps digest fats in the foods you eat. Bile is made up of several
substances, including bilirubin and cholesterol.
The gallbladder is connected to the liver and the intestine by a
group of ducts, including the hepatic duct, the cystic duct, and the common bile
duct. When you eat, the gallbladder sends bile through the common bile duct into
the intestine to help you digest the food.
What are the complications of gallstones?
Gallstones can block the ducts and hinder the flow of bile from the liver or gallbladder to the intestine. This blockage can cause bloating, nausea, vomiting, and pain in your abdomen, shoulder, back, or chest.
Gallstones can also cause the gallbladder or bile ducts to
become infected. A blockage in the common bile duct can cause jaundice
(yellowing of your skin or eyes) or can irritate the pancreas.
How do gallstones form?
There are two types of gallstones: pigment stones (made up of
bilirubin) and cholesterol stones (made up of cholesterol). Most gallstones are
Cholesterol gallstones can form when there is too much
cholesterol or bilirubin in the bile. Gallstones can also develop if the
gallbladder does not completely empty itself of bile.
Pigment gallstones may form in people who have certain
conditions, such as cirrhosis of the liver or blood disorders.
Who is at risk for gallstones?
The following have an increased risk for developing gallstones:
- people over the age of 60
- people who have a family history of gallstones (relatives who have the
- people who are overweight or obese
- people who lose a great deal of weight in a short period of time
- people who have diabetes
- people whose diet is high in fat and cholesterol
- people who take drugs that lower cholesterol
- American Indians and people of Mexican descent