Gallstones

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Signs & Symptoms

The majority of gallstones do not cause any symptoms, and do not need treatment.

Pain at the top, right side of the abdomen can occur if the gallstone blocks the cystic duct (which links the gall bladder to the common bile duct) during contraction of the gallbladder. This is known as biliary colic. The pain is often linked to fatty meals (when the gall bladder contracts). Typically the pain is intense for at least 30 minutes but begins to subside after an hour, as the gall bladder begins to relax. It is unusual for an attack of biliary colic to last longer than 6 hrs.

In some cases of gallstone disease the stone permanently blocks the cystic duct, resulting in inflammation of the gallbladder. This condition is known as acute cholecystitis. In acute cholecystitis the pain is severe, unrelenting and prolonged (usually longer than 5 hours). The pain is typically accompanied by a fever. Bacterial infection can also occur requiring the affected patient to stay in hospital to receive antibiotics.

Occasionally the gallstone may move out of the gall bladder and into the tube which carries bile to the intestine (known as the common bile duct). This blocks the flow of bile into the intestine and can cause jaundice (yellow skin and eyes). The patient may also notice dark urine and light coloured faeces.

Acute cholangitis (inflammation of the common bile duct) occurs if bacteria enter the blocked tube. This leads to a high fever often with pain, vomiting, and extreme tiredness.

Gallstones can become lodged at the junction of the pancreas and common bile duct. This leads to inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).

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