The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ on the right of the abdomen, just below the liver. It holds a digestive fluid created by the liver called bile, which is released into the small intestine. Gallstones are hard deposits of minerals from bile, and range in size from that of a grain of sand to that of a golf ball. Some people develop just one gallstone. Others may have many at once.
There are two types of gallstones:
- Cholesterol gallstones are the most common, are often yellow, and are made mostly of excess cholesterol secreted by the liver. (This has no relation to blood cholesterol.)
- Pigment gallstones are dark brown or black, and result when the liver produces too much bilrubin, a chemical produced as red blood cells are destroyed.
Some gallstones have no symptoms, but if one lodges in a duct and causes a blockage, it can be suddenly and intensely painful, for several minutes to a few hours. Pain may be:
- Sudden and intensifying in the center or upper right abdomen
- Between the shoulder blades
- In the right shoulder
Other symptoms include:
- Yellowing of skin or the whites of the eyes
- High fever with chills
If you experience abdominal pain so intense that you cannot stay still or find a comfortable position, or the other symptoms, seek medical care immediately.
Causes and Prevention
Pigment gallstones may be caused by cirrhosis of the liver, which may result from excess consumption of alcohol. Other risk factors include:
- Being female
- Age 60 or older
- Being American Indian or Mexican-American
- High fat and/or high cholesterol and/or low fiber diet
- Family history of gallstones
- Rapid weight loss
- Cholesterol-lowering medications
- Medications containing estrogen
A healthy, low fat, high-fiber diet can help prevent gallstones.
Tests used to diagnose gallstones include:
- Abdominal ultrasound [link] or computerized tomography [link] to create images of your gallbladder.
- Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)- Tests that use a dye to highlight your bile ducts.
- Blood tests that reveal complications like infection, jaundice, or pancreatitis
Gallstones with no symptoms, detected during scans done for other conditions usually require no treatment, but your WellStar physician will recommend that you be on alert for symptoms of gallstone complications.
For gallstones with symptoms, treatments include:
- Surgery to remove your gallbladder (cholecystectomy), resulting in the direct flow of bile from your liver to your small intestine. You will have no problem digesting food, but may be more susceptible to diarrhea.
- Medications to dissolve the gallstones are sometimes used in patients who cannot tolerate surgery. They help dissolve gallstones, but take months or years to be effective.
- Therapeutic endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), when the gallstone enters a bile duct.