Introduction of Gallstones

Gallstones are small stones, usually made of cholesterol, that form in the gallbladder. In most cases they do not cause any symptoms.

However, if a gallstone becomes trapped in a duct (opening) inside the gallbladder it can trigger a sudden intense abdominal pain that usually lasts between one and five hours. This type of abdominal pain is known as biliary colic.

The medical term for symptoms and complications related to gallstones is gallstone disease or cholelithiasis.

Gallstone disease can also cause inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis). This can cause persistent pain, jaundice and a high temperature (fever) of 38°C (100.4°F) or above.

In some cases a gallstone can move into the pancreas, causing it to become irritated and inflamed. This is known as acute pancreatitis and causes abdominal pain that gets progressively worse.

Read more about the symptoms of gallstone disease.

The gallbladder

The gallbladder is a small, pouch-like organ situated underneath the liver. The main purpose of the gallbladder is to store and concentrate bile.

Bile is a liquid that is produced by the liver, which helps digest fats. It is passed from the liver through a series of channels, known as bile ducts, into the gallbladder.

The bile is stored in the gallbladder and, over time, it becomes more concentrated, which makes it better at digesting fats. The gallbladder is able to release bile into the digestive system when it is required.

Treating gallstones

Gallstone disease is relatively straightforward to treat. The most widely used treatment is keyhole surgery to remove the gallbladder.

Doctors refer to this as a laparoscopic cholecystectomy. This type of surgery is generally safe with a low risk of complications.

There are several non-surgical treatments that can be used to break up gallstones, but they often return at a later date. So surgery is usually the preferred option where possible.

You can lead a perfectly normal life without a gallbladder. The organ can be useful but it is not essential. Your liver will still produce bile to digest food.

Read more about the treatment of gallstone disease.

Why do I have gallstones?

It is thought that gallstones develop because of an imbalance in the chemical make-up of bile inside the gallbladder.

In most cases the levels of cholesterol in bile become too high and the excess cholesterol forms into stones.

You are more at risk of developing gallstones if you are:

  • overweight 
  • female – women are two to three times more likely to be affected by gallstone disease than men
  • 40 or over – most cases of gallstone disease first develop in people aged 40 or above
  • a mother – women who have had multiple pregnancies have an increased risk of getting gallstone disease. It is thought that the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy can increase cholesterol levels

Read more about the causes of gallstone disease.

Who is affected

Gallstones are very common. It is estimated that, in England, around one in 10 of the adult population has gallstones. However, in most cases, they do not cause symptoms.

There’s a one in 50 chance of gallstones causing symptoms. Most people only experience biliary colic, but a minority of people go on to develop more troublesome symptoms or a complication.


Cancer of the gallbladder is a rare but serious complication of gallstones. An estimated 670 cases of gallbladder cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year.

Another rare but serious complication of gallstones is known as gallstone ileus. This is where the bowel becomes obstructed by a gallstone. This can cause symptoms such as vomiting and constipation.

Read more about the complications of gallstones.


Most cases of gallstone disease are easily treated.
Very severe cases can be life-threatening, especially in people who are already in a poor state of health, but deaths are now rare in England. It is estimated that the chance of dying from gallstone disease is less than one in 175.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance made by the body that is found in blood and tissue. It is used to make bile acid, hormones and vitamin D.
The gallbladder is a small organ found just under the liver. It stores bile for digestion.
Inflammation is the body’s response to infection, irritation or injury, which causes redness, swelling, pain and sometimes a feeling of heat in the affected area.
Jaundice is a condition that causes yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. It is brought on by liver problems.
The liver is the largest organ inside the body. Its main jobs are to secrete bile (to help digestion), detoxify the blood and change food into energy.

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