Location Map FAQ
St. Maarten Medical Center
Gallstones are hard particles that develop in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ
located in the upper right abdomen, the area between the chest and hips, below the liver.
Gallstones can range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball. The gallbladder can develop a single large
gallstone, hundreds of tiny stones, or both small and large stones. Gallstones can cause sudden pain in the
upper right abdomen. This pain, called a gallbladder attack or biliary colic, occurs when gallstones block
the ducts of the biliary tract.
The biliary tract consists of the gallbladder and the bile ducts. The bile ducts carry bile and other digestive enzymes from the liver and pancreas to the duodenum—the first part of the small intestine.
The liver produces bile—a fluid that carries toxins and waste products out of the body and helps the body digest fats and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Bile mostly consists of cholesterol, bile salts, and bilirubin.
Bilirubin, a reddish-yellow substance, forms when hemoglobin from red blood cells breaks down. Most bilirubin is excreted through bile.
Imbalances in the substances that make up bile cause gallstones. Gallstones may form if bile contains too
much cholesterol, too much bilirubin, or not enough bile salts. Scientists do not fully understand why these
imbalances occur. Gallstones also may form if the gallbladder does not empty completely or often enough.
The two types of gallstones are cholesterol and pigment stones:
Certain people have a higher risk of developing gallstones than others:
Other factors that affect a person’s risk of gallstones include:
Many people with gallstones do not have symptoms. Gallstones that do not cause symptoms are called asymptomatic, or silent, gallstones. Silent gallstones do not interfere with the function of the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas.
If gallstones block the bile ducts, pressure increases in the gallbladder, causing a gallbladder attack. The pain usually lasts from 1 to several hours.1 Gallbladder attacks often follow heavy meals, and they usually occur in the evening or during the night.
Gallbladder attacks usually stop when gallstones move and no longer block the bile ducts. However, if any of the bile ducts remain blocked for more than a few hours, complications can occur. Complications include inflammation, or swelling, of the gallbladder and severe damage or infection of the gallbladder, bile ducts, or liver.
A gallstone that becomes lodged in the common bile duct near the duodenum and blocks the pancreatic duct can cause gallstone pancreatitis — inflammation of the pancreas. Left untreated, blockages of the bile ducts or pancreatic duct can be fatal.
People who think they have had a gallbladder attack should notify their health care provider. Although these attacks usually resolve as gallstones move, complications can develop if the bile ducts remain blocked.
People with any of the following symptoms during or after a gallbladder attack should see a health care provider immediately:
These symptoms may be signs of serious infection or inflammation of the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas.
Ultrasound exam. Ultrasound uses a device, called a transducer, that bounces safe, painless sound waves off organs to create an image of their structure.
Computerized tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan is an x ray that produces pictures of the body.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI machines use radio waves and magnets to produce detailed pictures of the body’s internal organs and soft tissues without using x rays.
Cholescintigraphy. Cholescintigraphy, —also called a hydroxyl iminodiacetic acid scan, HIDA scan, or hepatobiliary scan—uses an unharmful radioactive material to produce pictures of the biliary system.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). ERCP uses an x ray to look into the bile and pancreatic ducts. After lightly sedating the person, the health care provider inserts an endoscope—a small, flexible tube with a light and a camera on the end—through the mouth into the duodenum and bile ducts.
Health care providers also use blood tests to look for signs of infection or inflammation of the bile ducts, gallbladder, pancreas, or liver.
If gallstones are not causing symptoms, treatment is usually not needed. However,
if a person has a gallbladder attack or other symptoms, a health care provider will usually
recommend treatment. A person may be referred to a gastroenterologist—a doctor who specializes in
digestive diseases— for treatment.
The usual treatment for gallstones is surgery to remove the gallbladder. If a
person cannot undergo surgery, nonsurgical treatments may be used to dissolve cholesterol
Surgery to remove the gallbladder, called cholecystectomy, is one of the most common operations performed
adults. Surgeons perform two types of cholecystectomy:
Laparoscopic cholecystectomy. In a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, the surgeon makes
several tiny incisions in
the abdomen and inserts a laparoscope—a thin tube with a tiny video camera attached. The camera sends a
magnified image from inside the body to a video monitor, giving
the surgeon a close-up view of organs and tissues.
Most cholecystectomies are performed with laparoscopy. Many laparoscopic cholecystectomies are performed
an outpatient basis, meaning the person is able to go home the same day. Normal physical activity can
usually be resumed in about a week.
Open cholecystectomy. An open cholecystectomy is performed when the gallbladder is
infected, or scarred from other operations. In most of these cases, open
cholecystectomy is planned from the start. However, a surgeon may perform an open cholecystectomy when
problems occur during a laparoscopic cholecystectomy. In these cases, the surgeon must switch to open
cholecystectomy as a safety measure for the patient.
To perform an open cholecystectomy, the surgeon creates an incision about 4 to 6 inches long in the
to remove the gallbladder. Patients usually receive general anesthesia. Recovery from open
may require some people to stay in the hospital for up to a week. Normal physical activity can usually
resumed after about a month.
You will be moved to a recovery room where your heart rate, breathing rate, oxygen saturation, blood
pressure, and urine output will be closely watched. Be sure that all visitors wash their hands.
Movement and deep breathing after your operation can help prevent postoperative complications such as
blood clots, fluid in your lungs, and pneumonia. Every hour, take 5 to 10 deep breaths and hold each
breath for 3 to 5 seconds.
When you have an operation, you are at risk of getting blood clots because of not moving during
anesthesia. The longer and more complicated your surgery, the greater the risk. This risk is
decreased by getting up and walking 5 to 6 times per day, wearing special support stockings or
compression boots on your legs, and for high-risk patients, taking a medication that thins your
If general anesthesia is given or if you need to take narcotics for pain, it may cause you to feel different for 2 or 3 days, have difficulty with memory, or feel more fatigued. You should not drive, drink alcohol, or make any big decisions for at least 2 days.
Avoid straining with bowel movements by increasing the fiber in your diet with highfiber foods or over-the-counter medicines (like Metamucil and FiberCon). Be sure you are drinking 8 to 10 glasses of water each day.
The amount of pain is different for each person. The new medicine you will need after your operation is for pain control, and your doctor will advise how much you should take. You can use throat lozenges if you have sore throat pain from the tube placed in your throat during your anesthesia.
Contact your surgeon if you have: