Also known as cholelithotomy, gallstone removal is a procedure that rids the gallbladder of calculus buildup.
The gallbladder is not a vital organ. It is located on the right side of the abdomen underneath the liver. The gallbladder's function is to store bile, concentrate it, and release it during digestion. Bile is supposed to retain all of its chemicals in solution, but commonly one of them crystallizes and forms sandy or gravel-like particles, and finally gallstones. The formation of gallstones causes gallbladder disease (cholelithiasis).
Chemicals in bile will form crystals as the gallbladder draws water out of the bile. The solubility of these chemicals is based on the concentration of three chemicals: bile acids, phospholipids, and cholesterol. If the chemicals are out of balance, one or the other will not remain in solution. Dietary fat and cholesterol are also implicated in crystal formation.
As the bile crystals aggregate to form stones, they move about, eventually occluding the outlet and preventing the gallbladder from emptying. This blockage results in irritation, inflammation, and sometimes infection (cholecystitis) of the gallbladder. The pattern is usually one of intermittent obstruction due to stones moving in and out of the way. Meanwhile, the gallbladder becomes more and more scarred. Sometimes infection fills the gallbladder with pus, which is a serious complication.
Occasionally, a gallstone will travel down the cystic duct into the common bile duct and get stuck there. This blockage will back bile up into the liver as well as the gallbladder. If the stone sticks at the ampulla of Vater (a narrowing in the duct leading to the pancreas), the pancreas will also be blocked and will develop pancreatitis.
Gallstones will cause a sudden onset of pain in the upper abdomen. Pain will last for 30 minutes to several hours. Pain may move to the right shoulder blade. Nausea with or without vomiting may accompany the pain.
Gallstones are approximately two times more common in females than in males. Overweight women in their middle years constitute the vast majority of patients with gallstones in every racial or ethnic group. An estimated 10% of the general population has gallstones. The prevalence for women between ages 20 and 55 varies from 5–20%, and is higher after age 50 (25–30%). The prevalence for males is approximately half that for women in a given age group. Certain people, in particular the Pima tribe of Native Americans in Arizona, have a genetic predisposition to forming gallstones. Scandinavians also have a higher than average incidence of this disease.
There seems to be a strong genetic correlation with gallstone disease, since stones are more than four times as likely to occur among first-degree relatives. Since gallstones rarely dissolve spontaneously, the prevalence increases with age. Obesity is a well-known risk factor since overweight causes chemical abnormalities that lead to increased levels of cholesterol. Gallstones are also associated with rapid weight loss secondary to dieting. Pregnancy is a risk factor since increased estrogen levels result in an increased cholesterol secretion and abnormal changes in bile. However, while an increase in dietary cholesterol is not a risk factor, an increase in triglycerides is positively associated with a higher incidence of gallstones. Diabetes mellitus is also believed to be a risk factor for gallstone development.
Surgery to remove the entire gallbladder with all its stones is usually the best treatment, provided the patient is able to tolerate the procedure. A relatively new technique of removing the gallbladder using a laparoscope has resulted in quicker recovery and much smaller surgical incisions than the 6-in (15-cm) gash under the right ribs that had previously been the standard procedure; however, not everyone is a candidate for this approach. If the procedure is not expected to have complications, laparoscopic cholecystectomy is performed. Laparoscopic surgery requires a space in the surgical area for visualization and instrument manipulation. The laparoscope with attached video camera is inserted. Several other instruments are inserted through the abdomen (into the surgical field) to assist the surgeon to maneuver around the nearby organs during surgery. The surgeon must take precautions not to accidentally harm anatomical structures in the liver. Once the cystic artery has been divided and the gallbladder dissected from the liver, the gallbladder can be removed.
If the gallbladder is extremely diseased (inflamed, infected, or has large gallstones), the abdominal approach (open cholecystectomy) is recommended. This surgery is usually performed with an incision in the upper midline of the abdomen or on the right side of the abdomen below the rib (right subcostal incision).
If a stone is lodged in the bile ducts, additional surgery must be done to remove it. After surgery, the surgeon will ordinarily insert a drain to collect bile until the system is healed. The drain can also be used to inject contrast material and take x rays during or after surgery.
A procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatoscopy (ERCP) allows the removal of some bile duct stones through the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, duodenum, and biliary system without the need for surgical incisions. ERCP can also be used to inject contrast agents into the biliary system, providing finely detailed pictures.
Patients with symptomatic cholelithiasis can be treated with certain medications called oral bile acid litholysis or oral dissolution therapy. This technique is especially effective for dissolving small cholesterol-composed gallstones. Current research indicates that the success rate for oral dissolution treatment is 70–80% with floating stones (those predominantly composed of cholesterol). Approximately 10–20% of patients who receive medication-induced litholysis can have a recurrence within the first two or three years after treatment completion.
Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy is a treatment in which shock waves are generated in water by lithotripters (devices that produce the waves). There are several types of lithotripters available for gallbladder removal. One specific lithotripter involves the use of piezoelectric crystals, which allow the shock waves to be accurately focused on a small area to disrupt a stone. This procedure does not generally require analgesia (or anesthesia). Damage to the gallbladder and associated structures (such as the cystic duct) must be present for stone removal after the shock waves break up the stone. Typically, repeated shock wave treatments are necessary to completely remove gallstones. The success rate of the fragmentation of the gallstone and urinary clearance is inversely proportional to stone size and number: patients with a small solitary stone have the best outcome, with high rates of stone clearance (95% are cleared within 12–18 months), while patients with multiple stones are at risk for poor clearance rates. Complications of shock wave lithotripsy include inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) and acute cholecystitis.
A method called contact dissolution of gallstone removal involves direct entry (via a percutaneous transhepatic catheter) of a chemical solvent (such as methyl tertiary-butyl ether, MTBE). MTBE is rapidly removed unchanged from the body via the respiratory system (exhaled air). Side effects in persons receiving contact dissolution therapy include foul-smelling breath, dyspnea (difficulty breathing), vomiting, and drowsiness. Treatment with MTBE can be successful in treating cholesterol gallstones regardless of the number and size of stones. Studies indicate that the success rate for dissolution is well over 95% in persons who receive direct chemical infusions that can last five to 12 hours.
Diagnostically, gallstone disease, which can lead to gallbladder removal, is divided into four diseases: biliary colic, acute cholecystitis, choledocholithiasis, and cholangitis. Biliary colic is usually caused by intermittent cystic duct obstruction by a stone (without any inflammation), causing a severe, poorly localized, and intensifying pain on the upper right side of the abdomen. These painful attacks can persist from days to months in patients with biliary colic.
Persons affected with acute cholecystitis caused by an impacted stone in the cystic duct also suffer from gallbladder infection in approximately 50% of cases. These people have moderately severe pain in the upper right portion of the abdomen that lasts longer than six hours. Pain with acute cholecystitis can also extend to the shoulder or back. Since there may be infection inside the gallbladder, the patient may also have fever. On the right side of the abdomen below the last rib, there is usually tenderness with inspiratory (breathing in) arrest (Murphy's sign). In about 33% of cases of acute cholecystitis, the gallbladder may be felt with palpation (clinician feeling abdomen for tenderness). Mild jaundice can be present in about 20% of cases.
Persons with choledocholithiasis, or intermittent obstruction of the common bile duct, often do not have symptoms; but if present, they are indistinguishable from the symptoms of biliary colic.
A more severe form of gallstone disease is cholangitis, which causes stone impaction in the common bile duct. In about 70% of cases, these patients present with Charcot's triad (pain, jaundice, and fever). Patients with cholangitis may have chills, mild pain, lethargy, and delirium, which indicate that infection has spread to the bloodstream (bacteremia). The majority of patients with cholangitis will have fever (95%), tenderness in the upper right side of the abdomen, and jaundice (80%).
In addition to a physical examination , preparation for laboratory (blood) and special tests is essential to gallstone diagnosis. Patients with biliary colic may have elevated bilirubin and should have an ultrasound study to visualize the gallbladder and associated structures. An increase in the white blood cell count (leukocytosis) can be expected for both acute cholecystitis and cholangitis (seen in 80% of cases). Ultrasound testing is recommended for acute cholecystitis patients, whereas ERCP is the test usually indicated to assist in a definitive diagnosis for both choledocholithiasis and cholangitis. Patients with either biliary colic or choledocholithiasis are treated with elective laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Open cholecystectomy is recommended for acute cholecystitis. For cholangitis, emergency ERCP is indicated for stone removal. ERCP therapy can remove stones produced by gallbladder disease.
Without a gallbladder, stones rarely recur. Patients who have continued symptoms after their gallbladder is removed may need an ERCP to detect residual stones or damage to the bile ducts caused by the original stones. Occasionally, the ampulla of Vater is too tight for bile to flow through and causes symptoms until it is opened up.
The most common medical treatment for gallstones is the surgical removal of the gallbladder (cholecsytectomy). Risks associated with gallbladder removal are low, but include damage to the bile ducts, residual gallstones in the bile ducts, or injury to the surrounding organs. With laparoscopic cholecystectomy, the bile duct damage rate is approximately 0.5%.
Most patients undergoing laparoscopic cholecystectomy may go home the same day of surgery, and may immediately return to normal activities and a normal diet, while most patients who undergo open cholecystectomy must remain in the hospital for five to seven days. After one week, they may resume a normal diet, and in four to six weeks they can expect to return to normal activities.
Morbidity and mortality rates
Cholecystectomy is generally a safe procedure, with an overall mortality rate of 0.1–0.3%. The operative mortality rates for open cholecystectomy in males is 0.11% for males aged 30, and 13.84% for males aged 81–90 years. Women seem to tolerate the procedure better than males since mortality rates in females are approximately half those in men for all age groups. The improved technique of laparoscopic cholecystectomy accounts for 90% of all cholecystectomies performed in the United States; the improved technique reduces time missed away from work, patient hospitalization, and postoperative pain.
There are no other acceptable alternatives for gallstone removal besides surgery, shock wave fragmentation, or chemical dissolution.
See also Cholecystectomy.
bennett, j. claude, and fred plum, eds. cecil textbook of medicine. philadelphia: w. b. saunders co., 1996.
bilhartz, lyman e., and jay d. horton. "gallstone disease and its complications." in sleisenger & fordtran's gastrointestinal and liver disease, edited by mark feldman, et al. philadelphia: w. b. saunders co., 1998.
fauci, anthony s., et al., editors. harrison's principles of internal medicine. new york: mcgraw-hill, 1997.
feldman, mark, editor. sleisenger & fordtran's gastrointestinal and liver disease, 7th edition. st. louis: elsevier science, 2002.
hoffmann, alan f. "bile secretion and the enterohepatic circulation of bile acids." in sleisenger & fordtran's gastrointestinal and liver disease, edited by mark feldman, et al. philadelphia: w. b. saunders co., 1998.
mulvihill, sean j. "surgical management of gallstone disease and postoperative complications." in sleisenger & fordtran's gastrointestinal and liver disease, edited by mark feldman, et al. philadelphia: w. b. saunders co., 1997.
noble, john. textbook of primary care medicine, 3rd edition. st. louis. mosby, inc., 2001.
paumgartner, gustav. "non-surgical management of gallstone disease." in sleisenger & fordtran's gastrointestinal and liver disease, edited by mark feldman, et al. philadelphia: w. b. saunders co., 1998.
sabiston textbook of surgery, 16th edition. philadelphia: w. b. saunders co., 2001.
Laith Farid Gulli, MD
Nicole Mallory, MS, PA-C
J. Polsdorfer, MD
WHO PERFORMS THE PROCEDURE AND WHERE IS IT PERFORMED?
The procedure is performed in a hospital by a physician who specializes in general surgery and has extensive experience in the surgical techniques required.
QUESTIONS TO ASK THE DOCTOR
- How long must I remain in the hospital following gallstone removal?
- How do I care for the my incision site?
- How soon can I return to normal activities following gallstone removal?
"Gallstone Removal." Gale Encyclopedia of Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Caregivers. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstone-removal
"Gallstone Removal." Gale Encyclopedia of Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Caregivers. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstone-removal
Gallstones are solid crystal deposits that form in the gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ that stores bile until it is needed to help digest fatty foods. These crystals can migrate to other parts of the digestive tract, causing severe pain and life-threatening complications. Gallstones vary in size and chemical structure. They may be as tiny as a grain of sand, or as large as a golf ball.
Gallstones usually develop in adults between the ages of 20 and 50. The risk of developing gallstones increases with age. Young women are up to six times more likely to develop gallstones than men in the same age group. In patients over 50, however, the condition affects men and women with equal frequency. Native Americans develop gallstones more often than any other segment of the population, and Mexican Americans have the second highest incidence of this disease. Gallstones tend to be passed down genetically in families.
Eighty percent of gallstones are composed of cholesterol . They are formed when the liver produces more cholesterol than the digestive juices can liquefy. The remaining 20% of gallstones are composed of calcium and an orange-yellow waste product called bilirubin, which gives urine its characteristic color and sometimes causes jaundice .
People who have gallstones may remain without symptoms for an extended period, especially if the stones remain in the gallbladder. In most cases, medical treatment is only deemed necessary if the individual is experiencing symptoms. When symptoms do appear, it is usually because the stones have left the gallbladder and are stuck somewhere else within the biliary system, blocking the flow of bile. If gallstones remain stuck in the biliary system, there can be damage to the liver, pancreas, or the gallbladder itself.
Gallstones bring on several disorders including:
- Cholelithiasis: Gallstones within the gallbladder itself. Pain is caused by the contractions of the gallbladder around the stone.
- Choledocholithiasis: The presence of gallstones within the common bile duct, which is the passage between that empties into the small intestine. Once discovered, common duct stones need to be removed in order to avoid further problems.
- Cholecystitis: A disorder marked by inflammation of the gallbladder. It is usually caused by the passage of a stone from the gallbladder into the cystic duct, which connects the gallbladder to the common bile duct. Cholecystitis causes painful enlargement of the gallbladder and is responsible for 10–25% of all gallbladder surgery.
Causes & symptoms
Gallstones are caused by an alteration in the chemical composition of bile, which is a fluid that helps the body break down and absorb fats. It is widely held that a diet high in fats and processed foods, and low in fiber and whole foods, is a strong contributor to gallstone formation. High levels of estrogen, insulin, or cholesterol can increase a person's risk of developing gallstones. If left untreated, the risk of developing anemia is also increased.
Gallbladder attacks usually follow a meal of rich foods, typically high in fat. The attacks often occur in the middle of the night, sometimes waking the patient with such intense pain that the episode ends in a visit to the emergency room. Pain often occurs on the right side of the body. The pain of a gallbladder attack begins in the abdomen and may radiate to the chest, back, or the area between the shoulders. Other symptoms of gallstones include inability to digest fats, low fever, chills and sweating, nausea and vomiting, indigestion, gas , belching, and clay-colored bowel movements.
Pregnancy or the use of birth control pills slow down gallbladder activity and increase the risk of gallstones,
as do diabetes, pancreatitis , and celiac disease . This is due to an individual's higher levels of cholesterol, insulin, or estrogen from oral contraceptives. Other factors that may encourage gallstone formation are:
- intestinal disorders
- coronary artery disease
- multiple pregnancies
- a high-fat, low-fiber diet
- heavy drinking
- rapid weight loss
When gallstones are suspected, blood tests for liver enzyme levels are often given. The levels are usually elevated when the stone cannot pass through the cystic duct or bile duct. Test results, taken together with symptom history (see above) and a physical exam, are simple and relatively inexpensive for diagnosing the presence of gallstones. However, ultrasound is the method of choice for a definite diagnosis. It has a high degree of accuracy, except in diagnosing cholecystitis (a stone in the cystic duct). Cholescintigraphy is an alternative method of diagnosis, in which radioactive dye is injected and photographed as it passes through the biliary system.
An allergic reaction to certain foods may contribute to gallbladder attacks. These foods should be identified and removed from the diet, or at least seriously limited. Foods that might possibly bring on allergic reactions include eggs, pork, onions, chicken, milk, coffee, citrus, corn, nuts, and beans.
Other dietary changes may help relieve the symptoms of gallstones. Generally, a vegetarian diet is protective against the formation of gallstones. Recurrent attacks can be diminished by maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy diet.
Choleretic herbs encourage the liver to secrete bile. They help maintain the appropriate chemical composition of bile so that it does not form stones. These herbs include:
- A tincture of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale ), 2–6 ml once daily.
- Milk thistle seeds (Sylibum marianum ), a dose equivalent to 70–210 mg of silymarin.
- Artichoke leaves (Cynara scolymus ), 150 mg three times per day.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa ), used as a spice; 150 mg three times per day.
Use of the above herbs cause some possible reactions, such as gas, diarrhea , nausea, and indigestion.
Other therapeutic approaches that have been found to be helpful in treating gallstones include homeopathy , traditional Chinese herbal medicine, and acupuncture . Knowledgeable practitioners should be consulted.
One-third of all patients with gallstones never experience a second attack. For this reason, many doctors advise an attitude of "wait and see" after the first episode. Changing the diet or following a sensible weight loss plan may be the only treatments required. A person having only occasional mild gallstone attacks may be able to manage them by using non-prescription forms of acetaminophen, such as Tylenol or Anacin. A doctor should be notified if pain intensifies or lasts for more than three hours; if the fever rises above 101°F (38.3°C); or if the skin or whites of the eyes have a yellowish cast.
Surgical removal of the gallbladder, called cholecystectomy, is the most common conventional treatment for recurrent or worsening gallstone attacks. However, surgery is unecessary in most cases where the gallstones remain without symptoms. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is the technique most widely used. It has mostly replaced traditional open surgery because of a shorter recovery time, decreased pain, and reduced scarring. However, the open surgery procedure is still used in about 5% of cases because of various complications.
If surgery is considered inappropriate, gallstones can be dissolved in 30–40% of patients by taking bile acids in tablet form. Dissolution of gallstones by this method may take many months or years depending on the size. Unfortunately, though, recurrence of stones is common after cessation of the medication.
Lithotripsy uses high-frequency sound waves directed through the skin to break up the stones. The process can be combined with the use of bile acid tablets. However, lithotripsy requires special equipment and is not always readily available.
Direct cholangiography can be used to remove gallstones by contact dissolution. The procedure is used to insert a catheter to inject medication into the gallbladder. Stones are often dissolved within a few hours by this method.
Forty percent of all patients with gallstones have "silent gallstones" that do not require treatment. If symptoms develop, however, medical intervention may become necessary. Gallstone problems requiring treatment may also develop infections that require antibiotics. In rare instances, severe inflammation can cause the gall-bladder to burst, causing a potentially fatal situation. The gallbladder is not an organ that is required to retain health. It can be successfully removed, with no recurrence of stones. Fat digestion, however, becomes more difficult after surgery, since the gallbladder is no longer there to store and release bile as needed.
It is easier, in general, to prevent gallstones than to reverse the process. The best way to prevent gallstones is to minimize risk factors. Since gallstones seem to develop more often in people who are obese, eating a balanced diet, exercising, and losing weight may help keep gallstones from forming. In addition, a diet high in dietary fiber and low in fats, especially saturated fats, is recommended. Processed foods should be replaced by complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains.
Increased intake of fluids will dilute the bile and inhibit gallstone formation. Six to eight glasses of water should be consumed daily, along with plenty of herbal teas and diluted juices.
Recent studies indicate that consumption of about two tablespoons of olive oil per day, which can be mixed with food, helps reduce cholesterol levels in the bloodstream and the gallbladder. However, large amounts of olive oil, taken as a so-called liver flush, should be avoided. This method can stress the gallbladder and lead to an emergency situation.
The Editors of Time-Life Books. The Medical Advisor: The Complete Guide to Alternative and Conventional Treatments. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life, Inc., 1996.
Gottlieb, Bill, ed. New Choices in Natural Healing. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, Inc., 1995.
Murray, Michael, N.D., and Joseph Pizzorno. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1991.
Shaw, Michael, ed. Everything You Need to Know About Diseases. Springhouse, PA: Springhouse Corporation, 1995.
"Exercise Prevents Gallstone Disease." Journal Watch
National Digestive Diseases Clearinghouse (NDDIC). 2 Information Way, Bethesda, MD 20892-3570.http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health/digest/nddic.htm.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders of the National Institutes of Health. Bethesda, MD 20892. http://www.niddk.nih/gov/.
Gallbladder Problems. http://www.sleh.com/fact-d04-gall.html.
WebMD/Lycos. "How Are Gallstones and Gallbladder Disease Diagnosed?" http://webmd.lycos.com/content/dmk/dmk_article_3961803.
"Gallstones." Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstones-1
"Gallstones." Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstones-1
A gallstone is a solid crystal deposit that forms in the gallbladder, which is a pear-shaped organ that stores bile salts until they are needed to help digest fatty foods. Gallstones can migrate to other parts of the digestive tract and cause severe pain with life-threatening complications.
Gallstones vary in size and chemical structure. A gallstone may be as tiny as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. Eighty percent of gallstones are composed of cholesterol. They are formed when the liver produces more cholesterol than digestive juices can liquefy. The remaining 20% of gallstones are composed of calcium and an orange-yellow waste product called bilirubin. Bilirubin gives urine its characteristic color and sometimes causes jaundice.
Gallstones are the most common of all gallbladder problems. They are responsible for 90% of gallbladder and bile duct disease, and are the fifth most common reason for hospitalization of adults in the United States. Gallstones usually develop in adults between the ages of 20 and 50; about 20% of patients with gallstones are over 40. The risk of developing gallstones increases with age-at least 20% of people over 60 have a single large stone or as many as several thousand smaller ones. The gender ratio of gallstone patients changes with age. Young women are between two and six times more likely to develop gallstones than men in the same age group. In patients over 50, the condition affects men and women with equal frequency. Native Americans develop gallstones more often than any other segment of the population; Mexican-Americans have the second-highest incidence of this disease.
Gallstones can cause several different disorders. Cholelithiasis is defined as the presence of gallstones within the gallbladder itself. Choledocholithiasis is the presence of gallstones within the common bile duct that leads into the first portion of the small intestine (the duodenum). The stones in the duct may have been formed inside it or carried there from the gallbladder. These gallstones prevent bile from flowing into the duodenum. Ten percent of patients with gallstones have choledocholithiasis, which is sometimes called common-duct stones. Patients who don't develop infection usually recover completely from this disorder.
Cholecystitis is a disorder marked by inflammation of the gallbladder. It is usually caused by the passage of a stone from the gallbladder into the cystic duct, which is a tube that connects the gallbladder to the common bile duct. In 5-10% of cases, however, cholecystitis develops in the absence of gallstones. This form of the disorder is called acalculous cholecystitis. Cholecystitis causes painful enlargement of the gallbladder and is responsible for 10-25% of all gallbladder surgery. Chronic cholecystitis is most common in the elderly. The acute form is most likely to occur in middle-aged adults.
Cholesterolosis or cholesterol polyps is characterized by deposits of cholesterol crystals in the lining of the gallbladder. This condition may be caused by high levels of cholesterol or inadequate quantities of bile salts, and is usually treated by surgery.
Gallstone ileus, which results from a gallstone's blocking the entrance to the large intestine, is most common in elderly people. Surgery usually cures this condition.
Narrowing (stricture) of the common bile duct develops in as many as 5% of patients whose gallbladders have been surgically removed. This condition is characterized by inability to digest fatty foods and by abdominal pain, which sometimes occurs in spasms. Patients with stricture of the common bile duct are likely to recover after appropriate surgical treatment.
Causes and symptoms
Gallstones are caused by an alteration in the chemical composition of bile. Bile is a digestive fluid that helps the body absorb fat. Gallstones tend to run in families. In addition, high levels of estrogen, insulin, or cholesterol can increase a person's risk of developing them.
Pregnancy or the use of birth control pills can slow down gallbladder activity and increase the risk of gallstones. So can diabetes, pancreatitis, and celiac disease. Other factors influencing gallstone formation are:
- intestinal disorders
- coronary artery disease or other recent illness
- multiple pregnancies
- a high-fat, low-fiber diet
- heavy drinking
- rapid weight loss
Gallbladder attacks usually follow a meal of rich, high-fat foods. The attacks often occur in the middle of the night, sometimes waking the patient with intense pain that ends in a visit to the emergency room. The pain of a gallbladder attack begins in the abdomen and may radiate to the chest, back, or the area between the shoulders. Other symptoms of gallstones include:
- inability to digest fatty foods
- low-grade fever
- chills and sweating
- nausea and vomiting
- clay-colored bowel movements
Gallstones may be diagnosed by a family doctor, a specialist in digestive problems (a gastroenterologist), or a specialist in internal medicine. The doctor will first examine the patient's skin for signs of jaundice and feel (palpate) the abdomen for soreness or swelling. After the basic physical examination, the doctor will order blood counts or blood chemistry tests to detect evidence of bile duct obstruction and to rule out other illnesses that cause fever and pain, including stomach ulcers, appendicitis, and heart attacks.
More sophisticated procedures used to diagnose gallstones include:
- Ultrasound imaging. Ultrasound has an accuracy rate of 96%.
- Cholecystography (cholecystogram, gallbladder series, gallbladder x ray). This type of study shows how the gallbladder contracts after the patient has eaten a high-fat meal.
- Fluoroscopy. This imaging technique allows the doctor to distinguish between jaundice caused by pancreatic cancer and jaundice caused by gallbladder or bile duct disorders.
- Endoscopy (ERCP). ERCP uses a special dye to outline the pancreatic and common bile ducts and locate the position of the gallstones.
- Radioisotopic scan. This technique reveals blockage of the cystic duct.
One-third of all patients with gallstones never experience a second attack. For this reason many doctors advise watchful waiting after the first episode. Reducing the amount of fat in the diet or following a sensible plan of gradual weight loss may be the only treatments required for occasional mild attacks. A patient diagnosed with gallstones may be able to manage more troublesome episodes by:
- applying heat to the affected area
- resting and taking occasional sips of water
- using non-prescription forms of acetaminophen (Tylenol or Anacin-3)
A doctor should be notified if pain intensifies or lasts for more than three hours; if the patient's fever rises above 101 °F (38.3 °C); or if the skin or whites of the eyes turn yellow.
Surgical removal of the gallbladder (cholecystectomy ) is the most common conventional treatment for recurrent attacks. Laparoscopic surgery, the technique most widely used, is a safe, effective procedure that involves less pain and a shorter recovery period than traditional open surgery. In this technique, the doctor makes a small cut (incision) in the patient's abdomen and removes the gallbladder through a long tube called a laparoscope.
LITHOTRIPSY. Shock wave therapy (lithotripsy ) uses high-frequency sound waves to break up the gallstones. The patient can then take bile salts to dissolve the fragments. Bile salt tablets are sometimes prescribed without lithotripsy to dissolve stones composed of cholesterol by raising the level of bile acids in the gallbladder. This approach requires long-term treatment, since it may take months or years for this method to dissolve a sizeable stone.
CONTACT DISSOLUTION. Contact dissolution can destroy gallstones in a matter of hours. This minimally invasive procedure involves using a tube (catheter) inserted into the abdomen to inject medication directly into the gallbladder.
Alternative therapies, like non-surgical treatments, may provide temporary relief of gallstone symptoms. Alternative approaches to the symptoms of gallbladder disorders include homeopathy, Chinese traditional herbal medicine, and acupuncture. Dietary changes may also help relieve the symptoms of gallstones. Since gallstones seem to develop more often in people who are obese, eating a balanced diet, exercising, and losing weight may help keep gallstones from forming.
Forty percent of all patients with gallstones have "silent gallstones" that produce no symptoms. Silent stones, discovered only when their presence is indicated by tests performed to diagnose other symptoms, do not require treatment.
Gallstone problems that require treatment can be surgically corrected. Although most patients recover, some develop infections that must be treated with antibiotics.
In rare instances, severe inflammation can cause the gallbladder to burst. The resulting infection can be fatal.
The best way to prevent gallstones is to minimize risk factors. In addition, a 1998 study suggests that vigorous exercise may lower a man's risk of developing gallstones by as much as 28%. The researchers have not yet determined whether physical activity benefits women to the same extent.
Acalculous cholecystitis— Inflammation of the gallbladder that occurs without the presence of gallstones.
Bilirubin— A reddish-yellow waste product produced by the liver that colors urine and is involved in the formation of some gallstones.
Celiac disease— Inability to digest wheat protein (gluten), which causes weight loss, lack of energy, and pale, foul-smelling stools.
Cholecystectomy— Surgical removal of the gallbladder.
Cholecystitis— Inflammation of the gallbladder.
Choledocholithiasis— The presence of gallstones within the common bile duct.
Cholelithiasis— The presence of gallstones within the gallbladder.
Cholesterolosis— Cholesterol crystals or deposits in the lining of the gallbladder.
Common bile duct— The passage through which bile travels from the cystic duct to the small intestine.
Gallstone ileus— Obstruction of the large intestine caused by a gallstone that has blocked the intestinal opening.
Lithotripsy— A nonsurgical technique for removing gallstones by breaking them apart with high-frequency sound waves.
National Digestive Diseases Clearinghouse (NDDIC). 2 Information Way.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Building 31, Room 9A04, 31 Center Drive, MSC 2560, Bethesda, MD 208792-2560. (301) 496-3583. 〈http://www.niddk.nih.gov〉.
"Gallstones." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstones
"Gallstones." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstones
Also known as cholelithotomy, gallstone removal is the medical procedure that rids the gallbladder of calculus buildup.
The gallbladder is not a vital organ. Its function is to store bile, concentrate it, and release it during digestion. Bile is supposed to retain all of its chemicals in solution, but commonly one of them crystallizes and forms sand, gravel, and finally stones.
The chemistry of gallstones is complex and interesting. Like too much sugar in solution, chemicals in bile will form crystals as the gallbladder draws water out of the bile. The solubility of these chemicals is based on the concentration of three chemicals, not just one—bile acids, phospholipids, and cholesterol. If the chemicals are out of balance, one or the other will not remain in solution. Certain people, in particular the Pima tribe of Native Americans in Arizona, have a genetic predisposition to forming gallstones. Scandinavians also have a higher than average incidence of this disease. Dietary fat and cholesterol are also implicated in their formation. Overweight women in their middle years constitute the vast majority of patients with gallstones in every group.
As the bile crystals aggregate to form stones, they move about, eventually occluding the outlet and preventing the gallbladder from emptying. This creates symptoms. It also results in irritation, inflammation, and sometimes infection of the gallbladder. The pattern is usually one of intermittent obstruction due to stones moving in and out of the way. All the while the gallbladder is becoming more scarred. Sometimes infection fills it with pus-a serious complication.
On occasion a stone will travel down the cystic duct into the common bile duct and get stuck there. This will back bile up into the liver as well as the gallbladder. If the stone sticks at the Ampulla of Vater, the pancreas will also be plugged and will develop pancreatitis. These stones can cause a lot of trouble.
Bile is composed of several waste products of metabolism, all of which are supposed to remain in liquid form. The complex chemistry of the liver depends on many chemical processes, which depend in turn upon the chemicals in the diet and the genes that direct those processes. There are greater variations in the output of chemical waste products than there is allowance for their cohabitation in the bile. Incompatible mixes result in the formation of solids.
Gallstones will cause the sudden onset of pain in the upper abdomen. Pain will last for 30 minutes to several hours. Pain may move to the right shoulder blade. Nausea with or without vomiting may accompany the pain.
Individuals suffering from sickle cell anemia, children, and patients with large stones may seek other treatments.
Surgery to remove the entire gallbladder with all its stones is usually the best treatment, provided the patient is able to tolerate the procedure. Over the past decade, a new technique of removing the gallbladder using a laparoscope has resulted in quicker recovery and much smaller surgical incisions than the six-inch gash under the right ribs that used to be standard. Not everyone is a candidate for this approach.
If a stone is lodged in the bile ducts, additional surgery must be done to remove it. After surgery, the surgeon will ordinarily leave in a drain to collect bile until the system is healed. The drain can also be used to inject contrast material and take x rays during or after surgery.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatoscopy (ERCP)
A procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatoscopy (ERCP) allows the removal of some bile duct stones through the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, duodenum, and biliary system without the need for surgical incisions. ERCP can also be used to inject contrast agents into the biliary system, providing superbly detailed pictures.
Rare circumstances require different techniques. Patients too ill for a complete cholecystectomy (removal of the gallbladder), sometimes only the stones are removed, a procedure called cholelithotomy. But that does not cure the problem. The liver will go on making faulty bile, and stones will reform, unless the composition of the bile is altered.
For patients who cannot receive the laparoscopic procedure, there is also a nonsurgical treatment in which ursodeoxycholic acid is used to dissolve the gallstones. Extracorporeal shock-wave lithotripsy has also been successfully used to break up gallstones. During the procedure, high-amplitude sound waves target the stones, slowly breaking them up.
There are a number of imaging studies that identify gallbladder disease, but most gallstones will not show up on conventional x rays. That requires contrast agents given by mouth that are excreted into the bile. Ultrasound is very useful and can be enhanced by doing it through an endoscope in the stomach. CT (computed tomography scans ) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging ) scanning are not used routinely but are helpful in detecting common duct stones and complications.
Without a gallbladder, stones rarely reform. Patients who have continued symptoms after their gallbladder is removed may need an ERCP to detect residual stones or damage to the bile ducts caused by the stones before they were removed. Once in a while the Ampulla of Vater is too tight for bile to flow through and causes symptoms until it is opened up.
Bilhartz, Lyman E., and Jay D. Horton. "Gallstone Disease and Its Complications." In Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, edited by Mark Feldman, et al. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1998.
Cholecystectomy— Surgical removal of the gallbladder.
Cholelithotomy— Surgical incision into the gallbladder to remove stones.
Contrast agent— A substance that causes shadows on x rays (or other images of the body).
Endoscope— One of several instruments designed to enter body cavities. They combine viewing and operating capabilities.
Jaundice— A yellow color of the skin and eyes due to excess bile that is not removed by the liver.
Laparoscopy— Surgery through pencil-sized viewing instruments and tools so that incisions need be less than half an inch long.
"Gallstone Removal." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstone-removal-0
"Gallstone Removal." Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstone-removal-0
Gallstones form in the gallbladder when there is an excessive increase in the concentration of cholesterol in bile. (Bile is a secretion of the liver that aids in fat emulsification.) In the United States, 20 percent of women and 10 percent of men have cholesterol gallstones by age sixty-five. Less common are pigment stones, which form when bilirubin, a bile pigment, precipitates in bile following an increase in the breakdown of red blood cells, as in sickle cell anemia. Risk factors for cholesterol gallstones include heredity (Native Americans are at increased risk), obesity, rapid weight loss, physical inactivity, pregnancy, and diabetes. Episodic abdominal pain (biliary colic) or inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis) occur in 25 percent of persons with gallstones. A stone may pass from the gallbladder and block the bile duct or cause pancreatitis. Symptomatic stones are generally treated by surgical removal of the gall bladder (cholecystectomy) or, occasionally, chemical dissolution of the stones by oral administration of bile acids.
Lawrence S. Friedman
(see also: Cholesterol Test; Nutrition; Physical Activity; Sickle Cell Disease )
Bilhartz, L. E., and Horton, J. D. (1998). "Gallstone Disease and Its Complications." In Sleisinger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease: Pathophysiology, Diagnosis, Management, 6th edition, eds. M. Feldman, B. F. Scharschmidt, and M. H. Sleisinger. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders.
"Gallstones." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstones
"Gallstones." Encyclopedia of Public Health. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstones
Gallstones are crystal-like particles that form in the gallbladder when certain substances separate out of bile. Gallstones can vary dramatically in size and the degree to which they cause problems.
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The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ that sits under the liver on the right side of the abdomen. The gallbladder concentrates and stores a greenish-brown liquid called bile that is made by the liver. When a person eats food, the gallbladder contracts and sends bile into the small intestine through tubes called bile ducts, where it helps break down fats in the food.
Bile has a number of ingredients, including water and bile salts. Bile salts act like detergent and help dissolve globules of fat. Bile also contains cholesterol, fats, and bilirubin (which is a waste product secreted by the liver, formed by the breakdown of red blood cells).
Gallstones are pieces of solidified bile. The components of bile usually remain dissolved, but when something goes wrong that upsets the normal chemical balance, gallstones can form. There are two main types of stones: cholesterol stones (which account for about 80 percent of gallstones in the United States) and pigment stones, which form from bilirubin and calcium.
Gallstones can form when bile contains more cholesterol (or bilirubin and calcium) than the bile salts can dissolve, when a chemical imbalance causes them to crystallize, and when the gallbladder does not contract enough to empty itself of bile on a regular basis. Gallstones can range in size from gravel-like particles to golf ball-sized spheres. Some people have single stones whereas others develop many stones.
One in every 10 people in the United States, or about 20 million people, have gallstones. Gallstones are rare in children and adolescents, although anyone can get them.
Diets high in cholesterol seem to be linked to gallstones, although some researchers believe that a high cholesterol diet must be accompanied by a genetic predisposition* toward gallstones. Anything that increases the cholesterol level in bile—including pregnancy, hormone therapy, and birth control pills—can increase a persons susceptibility to getting cholesterol stones.
- * genetic predisposition
- is a tendency to get a certain disease that is inherited from a person’s parents.
Obesity and Other health conditions
Obese people also have a higher risk of gallstones, as do people who are fasting or on fad diets, who may develop stones because lack of food means that the bile sits in the gallbladder for a long time. People with liver diseases, infections of the bile ducts, and blood cell disorders (such as sickle cell anemia) also are prone to developing pigment stones.
Other groups of people who seem to be at higher risk of developing gallstones include:
- women, especially those who have had several children, are two to three times more likely than men to develop gallstones
- people of Native American or Mexican ancestry
- people who are older than age 60.
Most gallstones do not cause symptoms; only one in five people with gallstones experiences problems.
Symptoms usually are felt after a meal, when the gallbladder contracts to secrete bile. If a stone is sent into the bile duct, a person will feel cramping pain in the abdomen that may also be felt in the shoulder and back. Some people experience nausea and vomiting, and some develop jaundice (yellow skin and eyes). Gallstones can block the bile ducts, and this can lead to damage of the gallbladder, liver, and pancreas*.
- * pancreas
- (PAN-kree-us) is a large gland that secretes digestive enzymes and the hormones insulin and glucagon.
Gallstones usually are diagnosed only if they are causing problems. To look for gallstones, doctors may use x-rays and ultrasound, a painless procedure in which sound waves passing through the body create images on a computer screen.
The standard treatment for gallstones, and the only one guaranteed to cure gallstones permanently, is surgical removal of the gallbladder, usually through laparoscopic surgery (surgery performed through tubes that are inserted into the abdomen through small incisions). More than 500,000 of these operations are done every year in the United States. If a person cannot have laparoscopic surgery, the gallbladder can be removed through an open incision 5 to 8 inches long in the abdomen.
People who cannot have surgery, or do not want to have surgery, can take medication to help dissolve gallstones, or they may undergo lithotripsy (LITH-o-trip-see). In this procedure, shock waves are passed through the skin to shatter the stone into tiny particles that may be able to pass out of the gallbladder on their own.
Pregnancy, Complications of
U.S. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, 2 Information Way, Bethesda, MD 20892-3570. The NDDIC publishes a brochure about gallstones and posts a fact sheet at its website. http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health/digest/pubs/gallstns/gallstns.htm http://www.healthtouch.com/levell/leaflets/nddic/nddic080.htm
"Gallstones." Complete Human Diseases and Conditions. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstones-0
"Gallstones." Complete Human Diseases and Conditions. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstones-0
"gallstone." A Dictionary of Nursing. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/caregiving/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gallstone
"gallstone." A Dictionary of Nursing. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/caregiving/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gallstone
"gallstone." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstone
"gallstone." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstone
gall·stone / ˈgôlˌstōn/ • n. a small, hard crystalline mass formed abnormally in the gallbladder or bile ducts from bile pigments, cholesterol, and calcium salts. Gallstones can cause severe pain and blockage of the bile duct.
"gallstone." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gallstone-0
"gallstone." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gallstone-0
"gallstones." A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gallstones
"gallstones." A Dictionary of Food and Nutrition. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gallstones
"gallstone." A Dictionary of Biology. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gallstone
"gallstone." A Dictionary of Biology. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gallstone
gallstone: see gall bladder.
"gallstone." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstone
"gallstone." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gallstone
"gallstone." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gallstone
"gallstone." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/gallstone