Gallstones are small stone-like deposits found in the gallbladder, which is a small sac-like organ that contains bile. Bile is the digestive fluid produced by the liver to break down and digest fats and is made up of cholesterol, water, fats, bile salts and bilirubin.
Gallstones are made of hardened bile, and if the bile contains high levels of cholesterol, bilirubin or bile salts, it becomes less watery and hardens into stones.
Gallstones can be present as one large gallstone that is the size of a golf ball, little stones, or a combination.
There are a few main types of gallstones:
It is possible to have a mix of cholesterol stones, pigment stones and mixed stones.
The symptoms of gallstones depend on how, if, and where the gallstones get blocked or lodged in. However, it is important to note that the size or number of gallstones per se is not as important as its presence, as it only takes a single stone to cause symptoms or problems.
Pain is a common symptom, which manifests in different ways. For some, it occurs in the upper right part of the abdomen or in the centre of the abdomen just below the breastbone. Others may experience it in the right shoulder or as back pain between the shoulder blades.
Other symptoms include:
The symptoms of gallstones usually occur after having a fatty and/or oily meal, and commonly at night.
Some people with gallstones do not show any symptoms, and in such cases, these are referred to as silent stones. These stones do not affect the gallbladder, liver or pancreas function.
Occasionally, gallstones may present without significant prior symptoms, with a gallstones-related complications as its first symptoms.
Gallstones are the result of an imbalance in bile and an unhealthy gallbladder. When an imbalance occurs, the high cholesterol content in bile crystalises and sticks to the walls of the gallbladder. Over time, they form gallstones which can start from grains of sand and grow to as large as a golf ball. These gallstones irritate the gallbladder and may block the gallbladder, bile ducts, liver or pancreas.
Cholesterol gallstones are caused by increased levels of cholesterol and bilirubin in the bile, as well as reduced levels of bile salts.
Pigment stones tend to occur in people who suffer from liver cirrhosis, infection of the biliary tract, and genetic blood disorders.
Risk factors that may increase the likelihood of gallstones include:
Gallstones can cause complications such as: