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Gallstones Signs & Symptoms

Updated July 18, 2017

Gallstone signs and symptoms vary. Patients with gallstones might experience no symptoms, mild symptoms, or severe symptoms that can cause serious illness and even death. A gallbladder attack from gallstones can be mistaken for a heart attack, producing diffuse pain in the upper abdomen and chest. Gallstones without symptoms that are incidentally discovered during radiology testing for an unrelated problem require no treatment and cause no ill effects.

Signs and Symptoms

A typical gallbladder attack causes pain in the upper right abdomen, below the rib cage. The area may be tender to touch. Pain between the shoulder blades or in the right shoulder is also a symptom of gallstones. Gallbladder attacks, which often occur after a meal that is high in fat, may subside when the gallstones move, but they can recur and produce complications, including infection and gallbladder rupture.

Function

The gallbladder facilitates digestion through the secretion of bile. Three ducts carry bile, which is manufactured in the liver, stored in the gallbladder and then transported from the gallbladder. If a gallstone or gallstones form in any of the bile ducts of the gallbladder, pain, inflammation, infection and other serious complications can occur. Severe obstruction of the bile ducts from gallstones can affect the liver and pancreas. Gallstone signs and symptoms depend on the size and number of gallstones, location of the blockage and amount of time gallstones have been present.

Types

Gallstones are formed from cholesterol or from an imbalance in the chemicals that make up bile---cholesterol, bilirubin and bile salts. Another type of gallstone is called a pigment stone. Pigment stones form in the gallbladder from gallbladder infection, heredity or cirrhosis of the liver. Cholesterol and pigment gallstones produce the same signs and symptoms.

Effects

The gallbladder facilitates digestion through the secretion of bile. Three ducts carry bile, which is manufactured in the liver, stored in the gallbladder and then transported from the gallbladder. If a gallstone or gallstones form in any of the bile ducts of the gallbladder, pain, inflammation, infection and other serious complications can occur. Severe obstruction of the bile ducts from gallstones can affect the liver and pancreas. Gallstone signs and symptoms depend on the size and number of gallstones, location of the blockage and amount of time gallstones have been present.

Treatment

The treatment of gallstones is usually surgery to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy). Gallbladder surgery is usually minimally invasive and recovery times are short, barring complications. Dissolving gallstones with drugs taken by mouth takes time, and the medications carry side effects that make the treatment less popular. The drugs are made from bile acids. Your doctor may suggest using either ursodiol or chenodiol ---medications that can help dissolve smaller gallstones. Drugs that are injected directly into the gallbladder to dissolve gallstones are being studied. During gallbladder surgery, gallstones may be removed using a procedure called ERCP (Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography).

Warning

If you are suffering fever, chills, prolonged pain, intractable nausea and vomiting, and jaundice, these symptoms may indicate serious complications of gallstones and may mean that the pancreas or liver are affected. Immediate medical attention is needed to prevent serious complications. Untreated symptoms related to complications of gallstones can be fatal.

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About the Author

Kathleen Blanchard is a registered nurse, with more than 10 years of experience in cardiovascular health, emergency room and ICU. She writes professionally for Emaxhealth.com. and AskMen.com. Blanchard is currently employed as a senior case manager and has held certification as a critical care registered nurse (CCRN), advanced trauma life support (ATLS), and advanced cardiac life support (ACLS).