Gallstones

Gallstones are small stones, usually made of cholesterol, that form in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small, pouch-like organ found underneath the liver.

Symptoms of gallstones 

Most cases of gallstones don't cause any symptoms. But if a gallstone becomes trapped in a duct (tube connecting to the gallbladder) or irritates the inside of the gallbladder it can cause a sudden severe abdominal (tummy) pain.

The pain can be felt:

  • in the midline of your abdomen (tummy), above the umbilicus (belly button)
  • just under the ribs on your right-handside – it may spread from here to your side or shoulder blade

The pain is sometimes triggered by eating fatty foods, but may occur at any time of day and it may wake you up during the night.

Some people with gallstones can also develop complications, such as inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis), which can cause:

  • persistent pain
  • jaundice (a term used to describe the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes.  It's caused by a build-up of a substance called bilirubin in the blood and body's tissues)
  • a fever

 

Treating gallstones 

Treatment is usually only necessary if gallstones are causing:

  • symptoms – such as abdominal pain
  • complications – such as jaundice or acute pancreatitis (a serious condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed over a short period of time). The pancreas is a small organ located behind the stomach and below the ribcage.

In these cases, surgery to remove the stone or the gallbladder may be recommended.

When to seek medical help 

If you think you may be experiencing symptoms described above you should make an appointment with your GP.

Contact your GP immediately for advice if you develop:

  • jaundice
  • abdominal pain lasting longer than eight hours
  • a high temperature and chills
  • abdominal pain so intense that you can't find a position to relieve it

If your own GP surgery is closed, you should contact your local out of hours service (OOH).

Causes of gallstones

The main purpose of the gallbladder is to store and concentrate bile (a liquid to help you digest fats). 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.

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)

Preventing gallstones

From the limited evidence available, changes to your diet and losing weight (if you're overweight) may help prevent gallstones.

A healthy, balanced diet is recommended. This includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day) and wholegrains.

Being overweight, particularly being obese, increases the amount of cholesterol in your bile, which increases your risk of developing gallstones. You can control your weight by eating a healthy diet and taking plenty of regular exercise.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information, read terms and conditions.

This page was reviewed June 2018

This page is due for review May 2019

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