Gallstones - Crozer-Keystone Health System - PA

Gallstones

Gallstones are lumps of solid material that form in your gallbladder. They are made when the digestive juice called bile gets hard and stone-like. Once you have had gallstones, you are at risk of having more.

Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand or as big as a golf ball. Your gallbladder may form a single large stone, hundreds of tiny stones or both sizes at the same time. In some cases, gallstones block the bile ducts, which can lead to a life-threatening infection of the bile ducts, pancreas or liver.

Symptoms of Gallstones

Gallstone symptoms (also called a gallbladder attack) may happen very suddenly. They often begin when gallstones get bigger, happen when the stones start to block bile ducts or occur after a fatty meal or at night.

Each person’s symptoms may vary. Symptoms may include:

  • Steady, severe pain in your upper belly (abdomen) that quickly gets worse
  • Pain in your back between the shoulder blades
  • Pain in your right shoulder
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

See your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these symptoms during or after a gallbladder attack:

  • Pain that lasts more than five hours
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Low-grade fever
  • Yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes
  • Clay-colored stools

The symptoms of gallstones may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider to be sure.

In some cases, people with gallstones don't have any symptoms. These stones are called silent stones. They don't stop the gallbladder, liver or pancreas from working properly. In most cases, silent stones don't need to be treated.

Diagnosing Gallstones

The following procedures can be used to identify and diagnose gallstones:

  • Ultrasound: This imaging test uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of your internal organs on a computer screen. It is used to see the gallbladder and gallstones.
  • Blood Tests: These look for signs of infection, blockage, liver problems, jaundice, and pancreatitis.
  • CT Scan: A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body. It can show gallstones. It can also show infection or bursting of the gallbladder or bile ducts.
  • Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): ERCP uses both X-ray and an endoscope, which is sent down your esophagus, through your stomach and into the first part of your small intestine (duodenum). Your healthcare provider can see the inside of these organs on a video screen and check for any problems. A dye is put into your bile ducts through the tube. The dye lets the bile ducts be seen clearly on the X-ray.

Treating Gallstones

  • Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP):  In addition to diagnosing gallstones, ERCP can be used to treat them. Once your healthcare provider has identified gallstones through ERCP, small stones can be taken out through the endoscope.
  • Sphincterotomy: This can also be done through the tube during an ERCP. Tight rings of muscle (called sphincters) are around the openings of the bile ducts. They can block gallstones. Cutting these rings lets the ducts open wider so that stones can pass into your intestine.
  • Gallbladder Removal (Cholecystectomy): If stones are in your gallbladder, your gallbladder must be removed. These stones cannot be taken out with ERCP. Gallbladder removal is a common surgery. Your body will work well without your gallbladder. It is not essential for a healthy life.

Most people respond very well once their stones are dissolved or taken out.