Rapid weight loss from eating a very low-calorie diet, or after weight loss surgery
Receiving nutrition through a vein for a long period of time (intravenous feedings)
Taking birth control pills
Many people with gallstones do not have any symptoms. The gallstones are often found during a routine x-ray, abdominal surgery, or other medical procedure.
However, if a large stone blocks a tube or duct that drains the gallbladder, you may have a cramping pain in the middle to right upper abdomen. This is known as biliary colic. The pain goes away if the stone passes into the first part of the small intestine.
Symptoms that may occur include:
Pain in the right upper or middle upper abdomen for at least 30 minutes. The pain may be constant or cramping. It can feel sharp or dull.
Yellowing of skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
Other symptoms may include:
Nausea and vomiting
Exams and Tests
Tests used to detect gallstones or gallbladder inflammation include:
Most of the time, surgery is not needed unless symptoms begin. However, people planning weight loss surgery may need to have gallstones removed before undergoing the procedure. In general, patients who have symptoms will need surgery right away or soon after the stone is found.
A technique called laparoscopic cholecystectomy is most commonly used. This procedure uses small surgical cuts, which allow for a faster recovery. Patients can often go home from the hospital within 1 day of surgery.
In the past, open cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) was most often done. However, this technique is less common now.
Medicines may be given in pill form to dissolve cholesterol gallstones. However, these drugs may take 2 years or longer to work, and the stones may return after treatment ends.
Rarely, chemicals are passed into the gallbladder through a catheter. The chemical rapidly dissolves cholesterol stones. This treatment is hard to perform, so it is not done very often. The chemicals used can be toxic, and the gallstones may return.
Shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL) of the gallbladder has also been used for people who cannot have surgery. This treatment is not used as often as it once was because gallstones often come back.
You may need to be on a liquid diet or take other steps to give your gallbladder a rest after you are treated. Your health care provider will give you instructions when you leave the hospital.
The chance of symptoms or complications from gallstones is low. Nearly all patients who have gallbladder surgery do not have their symptoms return.
Blockage by gallstones may cause swelling or infection in the:
Tube that carries bile from the liver to the gallbladder and intestines (cholangitis)
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you have:
Pain in the upper part of your abdomen
Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes
In most people, gallstones cannot be prevented. In people who are obese, avoiding rapid weight loss could prevent gallstones.
Jackson PG, Evans SRT. Biliary system. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 55.
Wang DQH, Afdhal NH. Gallstone disease. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 65.
Glasgow RE, Mulvihill SJ. Treatment of gallstone disease. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 66.
George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.