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Gallstones

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.

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 an opening (duct) 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.

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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 into the gallbladder through a series of channels known as bile ducts.

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 1 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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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. However, deaths from gallstone disease are rare in the UK.

Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fatty substance made by the body that is found in blood and tissue. It is used to make bile acid, hormones and vitamin D.
Gallbladder
The gallbladder is a small organ found just under the liver. It stores bile for digestion.
Inflammation
Inflammation is the body's response to infection, irritation or injury, which causes redness, swelling, pain and sometimes a feeling of heat in the affected area.
Jaundice
Jaundice is a condition that causes yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. It is brought on by liver problems.
Liver
The liver is the largest organ inside the body. Its main jobs are to secrete bile (to help digestion), detoxify the blood and change food into energy.

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