The gallbladder is located under the liver and near the stomach. Gallstones form when cholesterol or bile stored in the gallbladder hardens into pieces of stone-like material. Gallstones are made of cholesterol salts or bilirubin salts. Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. The gallbladder can develop just one large stone, hundreds of tiny stones, or almost any combination.
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Gallstones are caused when bile or cholesterol crystalizes into gallstones.
Gallstones can form under the following conditions:
People who are older than 60 are at increased risk for gallstones. Women between 20-60 years old and those with high estrogen levels are also at increased risk. People of Native American, Mexican American, and Northern European descent are also at increased risk.
Other factors that may increase your risk of gallstones include:
Certain medications can increase your risk of gallstones, including:
Many people have gallstones without symptoms, called silent gallstones. In some cases, these are treated.
Gallstones may cause pain in the upper abdomen. This is sometimes called an attack because it begins suddenly, often after a fatty meal. The pain is severe and may last for 30 minutes or several hours.
Other symptoms include:
If you have the following symptoms, see your doctor right away:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with blood tests.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
Talk to your doctor about the best treatment plan for you.
You may be prescribed:
Shock wave lithotripsy—machine called a lithotripter generates shock waves that pass through the body to break the gallstone into smaller pieces
Another procedure that may be used to treat gallstones is called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). ERCP uses a combination of endoscopy and x-rays to locate and remove gallstones before or during gallbladder surgery.
American Liver Foundation
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Gallstones. American Academy of Family Physicians' FamilyDoctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/gallstones.html. Updated March 2014. Accessed November 12, 2015.
Gallstones. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated June 8, 2015. Accessed November 12, 2015.
Gallstones. National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases website. Available at: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/gallstones. Updated November 27, 2013. Accessed November 12, 2015.
6/18/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Yarmish GM, Smith MP, et al. American College of Radiology (ACR) Appropriateness Criteria on right upper quadrant pain. Available at: http://www.acr.org/~/media/ACR/Documents/AppCriteria/Diagnostic/RightUpperQuadrantPain.pdf. Updated 2013. Accessed December 9, 2014.
Last reviewed November 2015 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 12/20/2014