• <div class="section1"> Definition

    A gallstone is a solid crystal deposit that forms in the gallbladder, which is a pear-shaped organ that stores bile salts until they are needed to help digest fatty foods. Gallstones can migrate to other parts of the digestive tract and cause severe pain with life-threatening complications.


    Gallstones vary in size and chemical structure. A gallstone may be as tiny as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. Eighty percent of gallstones are composed of cholesterol. They are formed when the liver produces more cholesterol than digestive juices can liquefy. The remaining 20% of gallstones are composed of calcium and an orange-yellow waste product called bilirubin. Bilirubin gives urine its characteristic color and sometimes causes jaundice.

    Gallstones are the most common of all gallbladder problems. They are responsible for 90% of gallbladder and bile duct disease, and are the fifth most common reason for hospitalization of adults in the United States. Gallstones usually develop in adults between the ages of 20 and 50; about 20% of patients with gallstones are over 40. The risk of developing gallstones increases with age--at least 20% of people over 60 have a single large stone or as many as several thousand smaller ones. The gender ratio of gallstone patients changes with age. Young women are between two and six times more likely to develop gallstones than men in the same age group. In patients over 50, the condition affects men and women with equal frequency. Native Americans develop gallstones more often than any other segment of the population; Mexican-Americans have the second-highest incidence of this disease.


    Gallstones can cause several different disorders. Cholelithiasis is defined as the presence of gallstones within the gallbladder itself. Choledocholithiasis is the presence of gallstones within the common bile duct that leads into the first portion of the small intestine (the duodenum). The stones in the duct may have been formed inside it or carried there from the gallbladder. These gallstones prevent bile from flowing into the duodenum. Ten percent of patients with gallstones have choledocholithiasis, which is sometimes called common-duct stones. Patients who don't develop infection usually recover completely from this disorder.

    Cholecystitis is a disorder marked by inflammation of the gallbladder. It is usually caused by the passage of a stone from the gallbladder into the cystic duct, which is a tube that connects the gallbladder to the common bile duct. In 5–10% of cases, however, cholecystitis develops in the absence of gallstones. This form of the disorder is called acalculous cholecystitis. Cholecystitis causes painful enlargement of the gallbladder and is responsible for 10–25% of all gallbladder surgery. Chronic cholecystitis is most common in the elderly. The acute form is most likely to occur in middle-aged adults.

    Cholesterolosis or cholesterol polyps is characterized by deposits of cholesterol crystals in the lining of the gallbladder. This condition may be caused by high levels of cholesterol or inadequate quantities of bile salts, and is usually treated by surgery.

    Gallstone ileus, which results from a gallstone's blocking the entrance to the large intestine, is most common in elderly people. Surgery usually cures this condition.

    Narrowing (stricture) of the common bile duct develops in as many as 5% of patients whose gallbladders have been surgically removed. This condition is characterized by inability to digest fatty foods and by abdominal pain, which sometimes occurs in spasms. Patients with stricture of the common bile duct are likely to recover after appropriate surgical treatment.

    Causes and symptoms

    Gallstones are caused by an alteration in the chemical composition of bile. Bile is a digestive fluid that helps the body absorb fat. Gallstones tend to run in families. In addition, high levels of estrogen, insulin, or cholesterol can increase a person's risk of developing them.

    Pregnancy or the use of birth control pills can slow down gallbladder activity and increase the risk of gallstones. So can diabetes, pancreatitis, and celiac disease. Other factors influencing gallstone formation are:

    • infection
    • obesity
    • intestinal disorders
    • coronary artery disease or other recent illness
    • multiple pregnancies
    • a high-fat, low-fiber diet
    • smoking
    • heavy drinking
    • rapid weight loss

    Gallbladder attacks usually follow a meal of rich, high-fat foods. The attacks often occur in the middle of the night, sometimes waking the patient with intense pain that ends in a visit to the emergency room. The pain of a gallbladder attack begins in the abdomen and may radiate to the chest, back, or the area between the shoulders. Other symptoms of gallstones include:

    • inability to digest fatty foods
    • low-grade fever
    • chills and sweating
    • nausea and vomiting
    • indigestion
    • gas
    • belching.
    • clay-colored bowel movements


    Gallstones may be diagnosed by a family doctor, a specialist in digestive problems (a gastroenterologist), or a specialist in internal medicine. The doctor will first examine the patient's skin for signs of jaundice and feel (palpate) the abdomen for soreness or swelling. After the basic physical examination, the doctor will order blood counts or blood chemistry tests to detect evidence of bile duct obstruction and to rule out other illnesses that cause fever and pain, including stomach ulcers, appendicitis, and heart attacks.

    More sophisticated procedures used to diagnose gallstones include:

    • Ultrasound imaging. Ultrasound has an accuracy rate of 96%.
    • Cholecystography (cholecystogram, gallbladder series, gallbladder x ray). This type of study shows how the gallbladder contracts after the patient has eaten a high-fat meal.
    • Fluoroscopy. This imaging technique allows the doctor to distinguish between jaundice caused by pancreatic cancer and jaundice caused by gallbladder or bile duct disorders.
    • Endoscopy (ERCP). ERCP uses a special dye to outline the pancreatic and common bile ducts and locate the position of the gallstones.
    • Radioisotopic scan. This technique reveals blockage of the cystic duct.

    Watchful waiting

    One-third of all patients with gallstones never experience a second attack. For this reason many doctors advise watchful waiting after the first episode. Reducing the amount of fat in the diet or following a sensible plan of gradual weight loss may be the only treatments required for occasional mild attacks. A patient diagnosed with gallstones may be able to manage more troublesome episodes by:

    • applying heat to the affected area
    • resting and taking occasional sips of water
    • using non-prescription forms of acetaminophen (Tylenol or Anacin-3)

    A doctor should be notified if pain intensifies or lasts for more than three hours; if the patient's fever rises above 101°F (38.3°C); or if the skin or whites of the eyes turn yellow.


    Surgical removal of the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) is the most common conventional treatment for recurrent attacks. Laparoscopic surgery, the technique most widely used, is a safe, effective procedure that involves less pain and a shorter recovery period than traditional open surgery. In this technique, the doctor makes a small cut (incision) in the patient's abdomen and removes the gallbladder through a long tube called a laparoscope.

    Nonsurgical approaches

    Shock wave therapy (lithotripsy) uses high-frequency sound waves to break up the gallstones. The patient can then take bile salts to dissolve the fragments. Bile salt tablets are sometimes prescribed without lithotripsy to dissolve stones composed of cholesterol by raising the level of bile acids in the gallbladder. This approach requires long-term treatment, since it may take months or years for this method to dissolve a sizeable stone.


    Contact dissolution can destroy gallstones in a matter of hours. This minimally invasive procedure involves using a tube (catheter) inserted into the abdomen to inject medication directly into the gallbladder.

    Alternative treatment

    Alternative therapies, like non-surgical treatments, may provide temporary relief of gallstone symptoms. Alternative approaches to the symptoms of gallbladder disorders include homeopathy, Chinese traditional herbal medicine, and acupuncture. Dietary changes may also help relieve the symptoms of gallstones. Since gallstones seem to develop more often in people who are obese, eating a balanced diet, exercising, and losing weight may help keep gallstones from forming.


    Forty percent of all patients with gallstones have "silent gallstones" that produce no symptoms. Silent stones, discovered only when their presence is indicated by tests performed to diagnose other symptoms, do not require treatment.

    Gallstone problems that require treatment can be surgically corrected. Although most patients recover, some develop infections that must be treated with antibiotics.

    In rare instances, severe inflammation can cause the gallbladder to burst. The resulting infection can be fatal.


    The best way to prevent gallstones is to minimize risk factors. In addition, a 1998 study suggests that vigorous exercise may lower a man's risk of developing gallstones by as much as 28%. The researchers have not yet determined whether physical activity benefits women to the same extent.

    Source: The Gale Group. Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.

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