International Global Health Blog

What are gallstones?

International Global Health

Gallstones aren’t really stones. They’re pieces of solid material that form in the gallbladder, a small organ located under the liver.

We might not even know we have them until they block a bile duct – causing pain that you need to get treated right away.


At a glance, gallstones disease is the most common disorder affecting the body’s billiary system, the network of organs and ducts that create, transport, store and release bile.


In size, gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a gold ball. A person can have from one large stone in their gallbladder or hundreds.



Type of Gallstones


There are two types of gallstones: cholesterol and pigment stones.

About 80% of all gallstones are cholesterol stones, yellow-green stones made up of hardened cholesterol.  Cholesterol stones are associated with bile that contains an overabundance of cholesterol or is supersaturated with cholesterol.

The other 20% of gallstones are pigment stones; composed of bilirubin and other elements. Pigment stones are often seen in Asian cultures but rarely in U.S patients. They are black or brown in color and why they occur is not fully understood. Black pigment stones tend to remain in the gallbladder where as brown pigment stones often lodge in bile ducts


What causes Gallstones?

-          Genes

-          Weight

-          Problems with gallbladder

-          Diet


Bile can be a part of the problem too. Our body needs bile but if it has too much cholesterol in it, gallstones can appear.



Gallstones may cause no symptoms. Gallstones pain may last several minutes to a few hours. If a gallstone lodges in a duct and causes a blockage, the symptoms may include:

  •          Sudden and rapidly intensifying pain in the upper right portion of your abdomen
  •          Sudden and rapidly intensifying pain in the center of your abdomen, just below your breastbone
  •          Back pain between your shoulder blades
  •          Nausea or vomiting
  •          Pain in your right shoulder



Seek immediate care if you develop symptoms of a serious gallstone complication such as the below:

Intense abdominal pain

Yellowing of your skin and whites of your eyes

High fever with chills


Am I at risk?

Some factors that may increase the risk of gallstones include:

-          Eating high-fat diet

-          Eating high-cholesterol diet

-          Eating low-fiber diet

-          Having diabetes

-          Having liver disease

-          Taking medication which contain estrogen (oral contraceptives or hormone)




The treatment for gallstones is to relieve painful symptoms and prevent complications.

Surgery (Cholecystectomy) needed to remove the gallbladder is the most common way to treat gallstones and generally the treatment when you have gallstones attacks.

A laparoscopic cholecystectomy involves a few incisions, which usually require a one night hospital stay.


Non-surgical treatment methods can also be used for symptomatic gallstones disease if you are at too high of a risk of because pregnancy, age or other factors.

Non surgical treatment is the best option when gallstones are trapped in bile ducts. There are several types of nonsurgical therapies that involve removing or attempting to dissolve or break up the gallstones.

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