Gallstones are small stones in the gallbladder which can block a duct inside it, causing a sudden, sharp abdominal pain

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What are gallstones?

Sometimes gallstones (small stones of cholesterol) develop in the gallbladder or nearby bile duct. The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ beneath your liver. It stores bile, which helps your body digest fat.

When this happens, most people have no symptoms but it can lead to biliary colic or other symptoms like pancreatitis and jaundice. Gallstones causing symptoms are usually treated with surgery.

Need to know

Most gallstones are made up of cholesterol but can also form from bile or calcium. They're more common the older you get and affect women more than men. Pregnancy, obesity and rapid weight loss are also risk factors. Possible symptoms of gallstones are:

  • biliary colic (severe abdominal pain), caused by your gallbladder squeezing to dislodge a stone
  • cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder), caused by infection and can lead to pain and fever
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes; darkening of urine)
  • acute pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

Other complications include severe infection of the bile duct and bowel obstruction.

Your consultant may carry out the Murphy's sign test. Their hand or fingers are placed on the upper right area of your abdomen and you'll be asked to breathe in. If this hurts, it usually means your gallbladder is inflamed.

Blood tests can detect infection, or that your liver may not be working normally ‒ a sign that gallstones have moved into your bile duct.

An ultrasound is the most effective at diagnosing gallstones. Gallstones can also show in routine X-rays, and MRI or CT scans. A type of MRI called MRCP is used to look at the bile ducts to see if the gallstones have moved into your bile duct.

A HIDA scan can be used to look at the function of the gallbladder and bile ducts

Usually, gallstones require treatment only if they've led to symptoms. If your consultant thinks treatment is necessary, they'll discuss your options with you. These may include:

  • Medicines. Ursodeoxycholic acid may be prescribed to dissolve smaller stones.
  • Laparoscopic cholecystectomy. A key-hole surgical procedure to remove your gallbladder. If a stone has moved from your gallbladder to your bile duct, another procedure may be necessary.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP). A procedure that can be used to remove gallstones from the bile duct.
  • A healthy, balanced diet. If surgery isn't recommended or you want to avoid it.

Our Gallstones locations

The Harley Street Clinic

The Harley Street Clinic

35 Weymouth Street W1G 8BJ London
The Princess Grace Hospital

The Princess Grace Hospital

42-52 Nottingham Place W1U 5NY London
The Lister Hospital

The Lister Hospital

Chelsea Bridge Road, SW1W 8RH London
The Shard Outpatients

The Shard Outpatients

The Shard, 32 St Thomas Street SE1 9BS London
London Bridge Hospital

London Bridge Hospital

27 Tooley Street SE1 2PR London
Walk-In GP Centre at London Bridge Hospital

Walk-In GP Centre at London Bridge Hospital

29 Tooley Street SE1 2PR London

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This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.