Gallstones are small stones, usually made of cholesterol, that form in the gallbladder. In most cases they don't cause any symptoms and don't need to be treated.

However, if a gallstone becomes trapped in a duct (opening) inside the gallbladder it can trigger a sudden intense abdominal pain that usually lasts between one and five hours. This type of abdominal pain is known as biliary colic.

Some people with gallstones can also develop complications, such as inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis), which can cause:

When gallstones cause symptoms or complications, it's known as gallstone disease or cholelithiasis. Read more about:

The gallbladder

The gallbladder is a small, pouch-like organ found underneath the liver. Its main purpose is to store and concentrate bile.

Bile is a liquid produced by the liver to help digest fats. It's passed from the liver through a series of channels, known as bile ducts, into the gallbladder.

The bile is stored in the gallbladder and over time it becomes more concentrated, which makes it better at digesting fats. The gallbladder releases bile into the digestive system when it's needed.

What causes gallstones?

Gallstones are thought to develop because of an imbalance in the chemical make-up of bile inside the gallbladder. In most cases the levels of cholesterol in bile become too high and the excess cholesterol forms into stones.

Gallstones are very common. It's estimated that more than one in every 10 adults in the UK has gallstones, although only a minority of people develop symptoms.

You're more at risk of developing gallstones if you're:

  • overweight or obese 
  • female, particularly if you've had children
  • 40 or over (the risk increases as you get older)

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Treating gallstones

Treatment is usually only necessary if gallstones are causing:

In these cases, keyhole surgery to remove the gallbladder may be recommended. This procedure, known as a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, is relatively simple to perform and has a low risk of complications.

You can lead a perfectly normal life without a gallbladder. Your liver will still produce bile to digest food, but the bile will just drip continuously into the small intestine, rather than build up in the gallbladder.

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Most cases of gallstone disease are easily treated with surgery. Very severe cases can be life-threatening, especially in people who are already in poor health. However, deaths from gallstone disease are rare in the UK.

Page last reviewed: 06/11/2015

Next review due: 06/11/2017