Gallstones are small stones, usually made of cholesterol, that form in the gallbladder. In most cases, they don’t cause any symptoms and don’t need to be treated. But if a gallstone becomes trapped in an opening (duct) inside the gallbladder, it can trigger a sudden, intense abdominal pain that usually lasts between 1 and 5 hours.
This type of abdominal pain is known as biliary colic.
Some people with gallstones can also develop complications, such as inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis). This can cause persistent pain, jaundice and/or a fever. When gallstones cause symptoms or complications, it’s known as gallstone disease or cholelithiasis.
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.
Gallstones are very common. It’s estimated more than 1 in every 10 adults in the UK has gallstones, although only a minority of people develop symptoms.
You’re more at risk of developing gallstones if you’re:
- overweight or obese
- female (particularly if you have had children)
- 40 or over (the risk increases as you get older)
Treatment is usually only necessary if gallstones are causing:
- symptoms, such as abdominal pain
- complications, such as jaundice or acute pancreatitis
In these cases, keyhole surgery to remove the gallbladder may be recommended. This procedure, known as a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, is relatively simple to perform and has a low risk of complications.
It’s possible to lead a normal life without a gallbladder. Your liver will still produce bile to digest food, but the bile will drip continuously into the small intestine, rather than build up in the gallbladder.