Gallstones or gallbladder stones are crystallised deposits in the bile. The stones can build up in the gallbladder or in the bile ducts. The medical term for the disease is cholelithiasis. Gallstones are the most frequent cause of gallbladder inflammation. There are different treatment methods available: surgery, fragmentation or endoscopic removal of the stones.
Bile consists of water, cholesterol, lipids and bile acids. If the percentage of cholesterol is too high or the percentage of bile acid is too low, this can cause gallstones to form. They are usually cholesterol stones.
Women are affected by gallstones twice as often as men. Besides the female sex, fatty food, excess weight, a lack of exercise, diabetes or a familial predisposition are deemed to be further risk factors.
Gallstones often do not cause any symptoms at all. It is assumed that only around a quarter of those affected have symptoms. If symptoms occur, they are typically colic-type pains in the right upper abdomen. They can be accompanied by a feeling of fullness, flatulence, nausea, vomiting or sweating. Yellow discolouration of the skin (jaundice) or brown discolouration of the urine are signs of a backlog of bile and should be checked immediately by a doctor.
The diagnosis of gallstones is made on the basis of the patient’s medical history, palpating the abdomen and with the help of other examinations such as an ultrasound or an endoscopy. An endoscopic examination of the bile tracts is called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).
The treatment depends on the symptoms as well as on the size and location of the gallstones. Painkillers and antispasmodic medication are administered to alleviate the pain. If the gallstones are in the gallbladder, it is usually surgically removed together with the stones. Surgical removal of the gallbladder is the most reliable way to prevent the gallstones from occurring again. Find out more about the surgery in the Gallbladder surgery section. An alternative to surgical treatment is extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL). This method involves destroying the stones with focused high energy sound waves from outside the body. As the gallbladder is retained with this method, there is a risk that new stones will form. If gallstones become stuck in the bile ducts, they can be removed endoscopically during endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography. This involves inserting an endoscope through the oesophagus, stomach and duodenum into the bile ducts.