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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.
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.
Most people who have gallstones don't have symptoms. When symptoms occur, they can include:
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.
There is no sure way to prevent gallstones. But you can reduce your risk of forming gallstones that can cause symptoms.
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 advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) 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.
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Current as of: March 22, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Arvydas D. Vanagunas MD - Gastroenterology
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