Reviewed by: Mr Neil Bhardwaj

What are gallstones?

Gallstones are caused by a chemical imbalance in the body that results in the formation of tiny crystals in the gallbladder. These crystals can grow to the size of a small pebble over the years and are known as gallstones.

Gallstones are common and approximately up to 20% of adults in the UK will develop them at some point in their lifetime. They are often diagnosed in the community via an ultrasound scan (non-invasive jelly scan) of the abdomen. Gallstones have a tendency to be hereditary and are more likely to develop in people over 40 years old. 

Symptoms of gallstones

The common symptoms are usually

  • bloating
  • excessive burping or wind
  • pain usually under the right rib cage radiating through to the back or between the shoulder blades or as a tight band across the upper abdomen.

These symptoms are particularly exacerbated on eating fatty foods or dairy.

Left untreated gallstone disease can cause persistent pain, yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice) and elevated body temperature. In severe cases gallstones can move to the pancreas causing pain and inflammation.

Some of the complications associated with gallstones include; acute inflammation/infection of the gallbladder, acute inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) or jaundice which can be life-threatening (cholangitis) if the stones escape from the gallbladder and block the bile duct (the main duct draining the liver that the gallbladder is attached to). Gallstones also increase the risk of developing gallbladder cancer.

What causes gallstones?

When the components that makeup bile get out of balance, gallstones can form. Gallstones are frequently not a problem and go unnoticed. However, if a gallstone becomes trapped in the opening (duct) in your gall bladder it can cause severe abdominal pain lasting from one to five hours.

How to get rid of gallstones

Sometimes gallstones when found incidentally on scans done for other reasons can be left alone. However, it is important to have a thorough discussion with someone experienced in managing gallstone disease before doing so.

The gold standard treatment, and the only proven method of treating gallstones, is an operation to remove the gallbladder called a laparoscopic cholecystectomy (keyhole surgery to remove the gallbladder). It is one of the most common general surgery operations performed and in the vast majority of cases it is performed as a day case procedure and most patients return to work within a couple of weeks.