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Gallstones (Cholelithiasis)

Gallstones or Cholelithiasis are the most common forms of gastrointestinal diseases in the United Sates. Gallstones are quite common. Studies show that one out of every twelve Americans suffers from this medical condition. People suffering from this disease may not show symptoms until they go for routine check ups or medical procedures.

Gallstones (Cholelithiasis) are hard stone-like deposits which are formed in the gallbladder. Gallstones are classified according to how they are formed and their composition. Cholesterol stones account for more than 70% of all gallstones in the United States followed by pigment and mixed stones.

What Causes Gallstone Formation:

Stones are formed when there is too much cholesterol in the bile. Large amounts of cholesterol are not properly absorbed and over time turn into stones which may block the flow of bile into the gallbladder. Stones may also form from taking in large amounts of salt in the body. This can be illustrated by putting large amounts of salt in water. The water can only dissolve a certain amount of salt and the excess is deposited at the bottom.

  • Women are more prone to develop gallstones than men. The female hormone estrogen causes more cholesterol excretion in the bile. Risks increase with pregnant women because of their higher estrogen levels. Birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy also increase cholesterol excretions in the bile
  • Diets high in fats and cholesterol but low in fibers generally increase a persons risk for developing gallstones
  • Age also is a major factor in developing gallstones. Years of salt and cholesterol buildup in your gallbladder increases your risk. Advance age also increases the level of cholesterol excreted in your bile
  • Family history of gallbladder diseases increases a persons risk for developing the disease

Clinical Manifestations

Gallstones may be silent producing no pain and mild symptoms. Pain can also be sudden in onset after eating a high fat meal.

Symptoms of a sudden gallstone attack include:

  • constant and severe pain in the upper abdomen
  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Back pain between the shoulder blades

Common symptoms

When to seek help:

Your gallbladder normally contracts to expel bile  which causes one or more stones to escape. Small stones may pass without any major complications but larger stones may block the entrance causing bile to buildup.

  • Nausea and Vomiting
  • Severe pain in the upper abdomen lasting from a few minutes to hours
  • Jaundice (yellow discoloration in the skin or eyes)
  • Dark colored or pale colored urine

Management and Treatment:

Gallstones are also referred to as “silent stones” because they are often detected when diagnosing for other diseases or routine medical checkups.


Removal of the gallbladder is recommended for symptomatic conditions. The medical procedure is called cholecystectomy. This is because the gallbladder is not a vital organ and stone formation occurs again after only removing the stones.

Non-Surgical Treatment

Drugs can be used to dissolve stone formations. Medications which dissolve the deposits depend on stone composition. Medicines may appear to be a cheaper alternative to surgery but maintenance may run for years and may prove costlier. Stone formation after medications is faster and continuous monitoring is needed.

Living without your gallbladder:

The gallbladder is not a vital organ and it does not affect the quality of life a person has. The gallbladder acts as storage for bile which is used for digestion. When the gallbladder is removed bile secreted by the liver is directed discharged for digestion. Changes may be noticed such as greater bowel movements and soft stools. Changes are temporary as the body adjusts to this new situation.

written by Ronald Uy, RN

© 2009 Hemorrhoid Information Center


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