Symptoms of gallstones

The most common symptom of gallstone disease is biliary colic, which is caused when a gallstone temporarily blocks one of the bile ducts.

Bile ducts are tube-like structures that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder and then into the digestive system.

Biliary colic

Biliary colic is a sudden, intense pain that usually lasts for over an hour (although sometimes it can last just a few minutes). The pain can be felt in:

  • the centre of your abdomen, below your breastbone and above your bellybutton
  • the upper right of your abdomen, with the pain travelling towards your shoulder blade

The pain is constant, dull and is not relieved when you go to the toilet, pass wind or are sick.

The pain can be triggered by eating fatty foods and it may wake you up during the night.

Biliary colic usually happens infrequently. After an episode of pain, it may be several weeks or months before you experience another episode.

In addition to the pain associated with biliary colic, a number of people also experience:

  • feeling sick
  • being sick
  • excessive sweating

Doctors sometimes refer to biliary colic as uncomplicated gallstone disease.

The progression of symptoms

If you do develop symptoms of biliary colic it does not necessarily mean you will go on to develop a more serious form of gallbladder disease such as acute cholecystitis or acute pancreatitis.

It is estimated that only around one in 20 people with biliary colic will then go on to develop more severe symptoms.

Doctors use three categories when describing gallstone disease:

  • gallstones without symptoms – asymptomatic gallstone disease
  • gallstones that cause episodes of abdominal pain (biliary colic) – uncomplicated gallstone disease
  • severe forms of gallstone disease – known as complicated gallstone disease

When to seek medical advice

If you think you may be experiencing episodes of biliary colic you should make an appointment with your GP.

You should seek immediate medical advice if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • jaundice – yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • abdominal pain that lasts longer than eight hours
  • a high temperature combined with chills
  • abdominal pain so intense that you cannot find a position to relieve it

Contact your GP immediately for advice. If this is not possible, phone your local out-of-hours service or call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47.

The gallbladder is a small organ found just under the liver. It stores bile for digestion.
Jaundice is a condition that causes yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. It is brought on by liver problems.

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