Gallstones (Cholelithiasis) | Digestive Health Program | Loyola Medicine

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Gallstones (Cholelithiasis)

Overview and Facts about Gallstones (Cholelithiasis)

A gallstone is digestive fluid that has hardened and formed in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is responsible for holding bile, which is released into the small intestine to aid in digestive health and ultimately leaves the body as waste.

Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand or as big as a golf ball. You can develop gallstones one at a time or several at once. There are two types of gallstones that occur with cholelithiasis: cholesterol gallstones and pigment gallstones. Cholesterol gallstones are the more common type.

Symptoms and Signs of Gallstones (Cholelithiasis)

Some people do not experience any signs or symptoms due to gallstones, but if one gets lodged and causes a blockage in the duct, the symptoms experienced could include:

  • Back pain that can be felt between the shoulder blades, or pain that is concentrated in the right shoulder
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sudden pain that progressively worsens in either the upper right portion of the abdomen or the center below the breastbone

These signs and symptoms can last up to several hours.

Causes and Risk Factors of Gallstones (Cholelithiasis)

Medical experts are not entirely sure of the exact causes for gallstones, but they believe the causes may include:

  • Bile having too much cholesterol
  • Having a gallbladder that doesn’t empty correctly
  • Too much bilirubin, which is formed by the liver when red blood cells break down

You could face an increased risk for developing gallstones if any of the following applies to you:

  • Being older than 40
  • Being pregnant
  • Diabetes
  • Family history
  • Fasting for extended periods of time
  • Keeping a low-fiber, high-calorie, high-fat diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity
  • Rapid weight loss

Tests and Diagnosis of Gallstones (Cholelithiasis)

If you have symptoms and your doctor suspects you may have gallstones, they can perform any of the following diagnostic tests to help get a definitive diagnosis:

  • Abdominal ultrasound
  • Blood tests
  • CT scan
  • Endoscopic ultrasound, which is when the doctor inserts a tube in your mouth to view your digestive system
  • MRCP, which is an MRI of the gallbladder, bile ducts, and pancreatic duct

Treatment and Care for Gallstones (Cholelithiasis)

Most people who experience symptoms from gallstones will ultimately require gallbladder removal surgery. People who have gallstones but do not experience symptoms can usually avoid surgery as long as they keep an eye on their overall digestive health.

There are also medications that can be taken to dissolve gallstones, but they do not always work and sometimes require years to be effective. Also, people are more likely to continue developing gallstones if they opt for medication over surgery.