Gallstones

The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ located underneath the liver on the right hand side of the abdomen, just beneath the ribs. Gallstones form in the gallbladder when there is an imbalance in the concentration of cholesterol and bile salts in the bile.

Gallstones are very common in our community, effecting 15-20% of people overall, however in the majority of these patients the gallstones do not cause any problems and thus do not need to be treated.

Risk factors for developing gallstones include being female, overweight, a history of gallstones in the family and increasing age. Gallstones also commonly develop in patients who have lost weight rapidly, for example after weight loss surgery.

Biliary colic is the name given to the pain that gallstones can cause. It is typically a severe pain that occurs underneath the rib cage and can spread around to the back and up into the shoulder. Patients may also experience nausea and bloating. The pain is often brought on by eating fatty foods. Attacks may last from minutes to hours, and are occasionally so severe that patients need to present to a doctor for strong painkillers.

Cholecystitis is the name given to an infection in the gallbladder. In addition to pain, patients with cholecystitis will also have a fever. Cholecystitis is an emergency, it can sometimes be treated with antibiotics through a drip but often urgent surgery will be required.

Pancreatitis can be caused by small gallstones which escape the gallbladder and travel down the bile duct before becoming lodged at the bottom end, blocking the juices flowing out of the pancreas. This is a serious condition which requires admission to hospital for treatment and urgent surgery is usually required. Further information can be found in the section on pancreatitis.

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy, or keyhole gallbladder surgery, is the operation performed to treat gallstones. It is a very safe and commonly performed operation. The surgery itself usually takes 1 hour, and patients stay 1 night in hospital, or in certain circumstances may even be able to be discharged home the same day. Recovery time is usually around 2 weeks. Your surgeon will provide you with more information about the risks and benefits of gallbladder surgery at the time of your consultation.