The gallbladder stores bile, an important digestive juice. A small pouch-like organ located on the right side of the abdomen, the gallbladder is connected to the bile ducts under the liver.
Gallstones are the most common disorder of the gallbladder. They form when liquid bile solidifies into crystals, which may become “stones” ‒ hence the term gallstones. Excessive cholesterol or bilirubin (a byproduct of the breakdown of old red blood cells) in the bile can lead to gallstones. Stones may also develop if bile incompletely empties from the gallbladder and becomes too concentrated over time.
Gallstones range in size, from as small as a grain of sand to as large as a golf ball. While often harmless, gallstones become a cause for concern when they block biliary or pancreatic ducts. Obstruction of these ducts can seriously affect the gallbladder, pancreas and/or liver. Gallstones are the major cause of acute or chronic inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis).
Gallstones Risk Factors and Symptoms
Risk factors for developing gallstones include obesity, gender (women are more susceptible to the condition), diabetes and losing weight quickly. Ethnicity also plays a role, with Native Americans and Mexican-Americans at higher risk than others.
Gallstones exhibit very few signs, if any. People often do not realize they have gallstones until a blockage occurs in one of the ducts. The most common symptom is pain in the center and/or upper right quadrant of the abdomen. Patients may also experience discomfort between the shoulder blades or right upper back. Nausea and vomiting may also be present. The pain may go away within 15 to 20 minutes, signaling that the gallstone may have passed through the duct. However, if the pain lasts longer than a few hours and is intense, you should immediately contact your physician.
Symptoms of more serious gallstone complications include:
- severe and intolerable abdominal pain
- jaundice (a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes)
- high fever with chills
Gallstones Diagnosis and Treatment
Your physician will ask about your medical history and conduct a physical exam. You may need to undergo imaging tests such as an abdominal ultrasound or CT or MRI scan to visually determine if gallstones are the source of your symptoms. Blood tests may also be recommended to rule out other complications such as infection or pancreatitis.
More sophisticated GI testing may be required. These tests include endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). At NorthShore, our advanced therapeutic endoscopists perform these minimally-invasive diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, which use a lighted flexible tube and x-ray to examine the bile and pancreatic ducts for gallstones or other abnormalities. If gallstones are found to be blocking a bile or pancreatic duct, they can be removed with ERCP.
Laparoscopic surgery to remove the gallbladder is the primary treatment for symptomatic gallstones. In certain circumstances, medication can be a viable alternative to surgery.
For More Information
For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our gastroenterologists, please call 847.657.1900.