Gallstones are small stones that build-up in the gallbladder. Around one in 10 people have gallstones but most won’t be aware of them because they don’t cause any symptoms. However, gallstones can be very painful and may require treatment or an operation to remove the gallbladder.
The gallbladder is a small organ beneath the liver. It plays a role in digestion of fats from food by storing bile and delivering it to the small intestine when food arrives. Bile is produced by the liver and comprises cholesterol, bilirubin and bile salts.
What are gallstones?
Gallstones develop when cholesterol levels in the bile are too high and excess cholesterol turns into stones.
Most gallstones are mixed stones or cholesterol stones, mostly made up of cholesterol. They are usually yellow or green.
Another type of gallstones are pigment stones, which are mostly made up of bilirubin and are smaller and darker.
Who is at risk of having gallstones?
Risk factors for developing gallstones include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Being female
- Being over 40
- A woman who's had more than one pregnancy
- Having cirrhosis of the liver
- Having Crohn’s disease or IBS ( irritable bowel syndrome)
- A family history of gallstones
- Having weight loss surgery or recently having lost weight
- Being treated with the antibiotic ceftriaxone
- Being on the Pill
- Women taking high-dose oestrogen therapy
- Having type 2 diabetes is suspected of being a risk factor
- A lack of exercise is also thought to increase the risk of gallstones
Most gallstones don’t cause any symptoms, known as asymptomatic gallstone disease. However, intense pain from biliary colic is the most common symptom when a gallstone blocks a bile duct. Biliary colic pain is constant and affects the centre of the abdomen above the bellybutton to below the breastbone and the upper right hand side of the abdomen towards the shoulder blade. Symptoms may also include sweating and feeling sick. Biliary colic does not get better by going to the toilet, passing wind or being sick. This pain may be caused by eating fatty food. Biliary colic is also called uncomplicated gallstone disease and can last from a few minutes, but usually lasts over an hour.
Seek medical advice if the biliary colic is so painful that nothing you do or any position you sit in or lie in helps, or if the pain lasts for longer than eight hours. Other warning signs requiring medical advice include yellowing of the skin or eyes, called jaundice, or a high temperature and chills.
Having episodes of biliary colic doesn't automatically mean a person will develop more serious gallbladder conditions, known as complicated gallstone disease. These include acute cholecystitis or acute pancreatitis.