Gallstones

Gallstones are made from cholesterol and other substances found in bile. They can range in size from smaller than a grain of sand to as large as a golf ball.

Most gallstones do not cause problems, but if they block a duct, they usually need treatment.

Gallstones: What You Need to Know

Prevention

Three ways to reduce your risk for gallstones include:

  • Aim for and maintain a healthy weight
  • Lose weight at a healthy pace of about one or two pounds per week
  • Avoid skipping meals

Teamwork

As a university hospital, Fletcher Allen partners with the University of Vermont. In addition to providing excellent patient care, our physicians generate advances in the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of digestive diseases, and train the next generation of specialists in this field.

Technology

Our team offers specialized services to diagnose and treat gallstones, including ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography) and cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal surgery). Learn more about diagnosis and treatment for gallstones.

Experienced, Trusted Expertise

We are the largest and most comprehensive digestive disease specialty group in Vermont and northeastern New York with two subspecialists board certified in endoscopic ultrasound.

What are Gallstones?

The gallbladder is a small sac found just under the liver that stores bile made by the liver. Bile helps you digest fats. Bile moves from the gallbladder to the small intestine through tubes called the cystic duct and common bile duct.

Gallstones happen when one of the substances that makes up bile are out of balance. For example, if there is too much cholesterol in the bile, crystals form. Over time, the crystals can stick together and form gallstones. There are two of types gallstones: cholesterol (most common) and pigment. Pigment gallstones happen when there is too much bilirubin in your bile. Bilirubin is a chemical that's produced when your body breaks down red blood cells.

You can have gallstones and no gallbladder symptoms, but if they are blocking a duct then you may feel one or more of the following:

  • Intense abdominal pain; see a doctor immediately if you can't sit still or find a comfortable position
  • Your skin and the whites of your eyes turn yellow (jaundice); see a doctor immediately
  • High fever with chills; see a doctor immediately
  • Sudden pain in the upper right or center (just below your breastbone) of your abdomen
  • Back pain between your shoulder blades
  • Right shoulder pain

Gallstones are common in the United States, where they affect an estimated 10 to 15 percent of adults. Several factors can increase your risk of developing gallstones, including:

  • Gender: the condition is more common in women than men
  • Age: being age 60 or older
  • Race: Native Americans and Mexican-Americans are more likely to have gallstones
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Eating too many fats and cholesterol and not enough dietary fiber
  • Losing weight quickly
  • Family history of gallstones
  • Pregnancy
  • Certain medications such as those that lower cholesterol or contain estrogen (hormone therapy drugs)

Diagnosis and Treatment: Gallstones

Learn more about diagnosis and treatment for gallstones.

Find a Fletcher Allen physician or call 802-847-8865.