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Learning About Gallstones

Gallbladder, common bile duct, and cystic duct

What are gallstones?

Gallstones are stones that form in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small sac located just under the liver. It stores bile released by the liver. Bile helps you digest fats. Gallstones can be smaller than a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball.

Gallstones form when cholesterol and other things found in bile make stones. They can also form if the gallbladder doesn't empty as it should.

Gallstones can also form in the common bile duct or cystic duct. These tubes carry bile from the gallbladder and the liver to the small intestine.

What happens when you have gallstones?

The progression of gallstones depends on whether you have symptoms. Most people with gallstones have no symptoms and do not need treatment.

The most common problem caused by gallstones occurs when a gallstone blocks the cystic duct that drains the gallbladder. It often causes bouts of pain that come and go as the gallbladder contracts and expands. The bouts of pain are often severe and steady. The pain can last from 15 minutes to up to 6 hours. And the pain may get worse after a meal. Symptoms usually improve within a few days.

If the pain is severe or if you have had gallbladder pain before, you may need to have your gallbladder removed.

In rare cases, gallstones can cause pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. Gallstones back up the flow of digestive enzymes made by the pancreas. Pancreatitis may cause sudden, severe belly pain, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, and fever.

What are the symptoms?

Most people who have gallstones don't have symptoms. When symptoms occur, they can include:

  • Pain in the pit of your stomach or in the upper right part of your belly. It may spread to your right upper back or shoulder blade area.
  • Pain that may come and go or be steady. It may get worse when you eat.
  • Fever and chills, if a gallstone is blocking a bile duct and causing an infection.
  • Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes.

Pain can last 15 minutes to 24 hours. Continuous pain for 1 to 5 hours is common. The pain may begin at night and be severe enough to wake you. Pain often starts after eating food that is high in fat. The pain usually makes it hard to get comfortable. Moving around doesn't make the pain go away.

How can you prevent gallstones?

There is no sure way to prevent gallstones. But you can reduce your risk of forming gallstones that can cause symptoms.

  • Stay at a healthy weight. If you need to lose weight, do so slowly and sensibly.
  • Eat regular, balanced meals.
  • Be active, and exercise regularly.

How are gallstones treated?

  • If you don't have symptoms, you probably don't need treatment.
  • For mild symptoms, your doctor may have you take pain medicine and wait to see if the pain goes away.
  • For severe pain or infection, or if you have more than one gallstone attack, your doctor may suggest surgery to have your gallbladder removed. The body works fine without a gallbladder.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.