Introduction 

Gallstones are small stones, usually made of cholesterol, that form in the gallbladder. In most cases they do not cause any symptoms and do not 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.

The medical term for symptoms and complications related to gallstones is gallstone disease or cholelithiasis.

Gallstone disease can also cause inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis). This can cause persistent pain, jaundice and a high temperature (fever) of 38°C (100.4°F) or above.

In some cases a gallstone can move into the pancreas, causing it to become irritated and inflamed. This is known as acute pancreatitis and causes abdominal pain that gets progressively worse.

Read more about the symptoms of gallstones and the complications of gallstones.

The gallbladder

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

Bile is a liquid produced by the liver, which helps digest fats. It is 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 is able to release bile into the digestive system when it is needed.

What causes gallstones

It is thought that gallstones 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 is estimated that more than one in every 10 adults in the UK has gallstones, although only a minority of people will develop symptoms.

You are more at risk of developing gallstones if you are:

  • overweight or obese 
  • female – women are two to three times more likely to be affected by gallstone disease than men
  • 40 or over – most cases of gallstone disease first develop in people aged 40 or older and the risk increases as you get older
  • a mother – women who have had children have an increased risk of gallstone disease, which may be because the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy increase cholesterol levels

Read more about the causes of gallstones and preventing gallstones

Treating gallstones

Treatment is usually only necessary if gallstones are causing symptoms, such as abdominal pain.

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. The organ can be useful but it is not essential. 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.

Read more about treating gallstones and diagnosing gallstones.

Outlook

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, but deaths are rare in the UK.




Gallstones

Gallstones are the most common cause of emergency hospital admission for people with abdominal pain. About 8% of the adult population has gallstones and 50,000 people a year have an operation to remove their gallbladder.

Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

Page last reviewed: 18/11/2013

Next review due: 18/11/2015