They aren’t really stones. They're pieces of solid material that form in the gallbladder, a small organ located under the liver.
You might not even know you have them until they block a bile duct, causing pain that you need to get treated right away.
The two main kinds are:
There may be several reasons, including:
Bile can be part of the problem. Your body needs bile, but if it has too much cholesterol in it, that makes gallstones more likely.
It can also happen if your gallbladder can’t empty properly.
Pigment stones are more common in people with certain medical conditions, such as cirrhosis (a liver disease) or blood diseases such as sickle cell anemia.
You're more likely to get gallstones if:
You're obese. This is one of the biggest risk factors. Obesity can raise your cholesterol level and also make it harder for the gallbladder to empty completely.
You take birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy for menopause symptoms, or are pregnant. The extra estrogen is the problem. It can increase cholesterol and make it harder for the gallbladder to empty.
You have diabetes. People with this condition tend to have higher levels of triglycerides (a type of blood fat), which is a risk factor for gallstones.
You take medicine to lower your cholesterol. Some of these drugs boost the amount of cholesterol in bile, which may increase your chances of getting cholesterol stones.
You lost weight too quickly. Your liver makes extra cholesterol, which may lead to gallstones.
You’re fasting. Your gallbladder may not squeeze as much.
You might not notice anything, or even know you have gallstones, unless your doctor tells you. But if you do get symptoms, they usually include:
If your doctor thinks you may have gallstones, he'll give you a physical exam. You may also get:
Blood tests to check for signs of infection or obstruction, and to rule out other conditions.
Ultrasound. This quick procedure is done in your doctor’s office, and it makes images of the inside of your body.
CT scan. Specialized X-rays allow your doctor to see inside your body, including your gallbladder.
Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP). This test uses a magnetic field and pulses of radio-wave energy to make pictures of the inside of your body, including the liver and the gallbladder.
Cholescintigraphy (HIDA scan). This test can check on whether the gallbladder squeezes correctly. Doctors inject a harmless radioactive material, which makes its way to the organ. The technician can then watch its movement.
Endoscopic ultrasound. This test combines ultrasound and endoscopy to look for gallstones.
Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). The doctor inserts an endoscope through your mouth down to the small intestine and injects a dye to allow the bile ducts to be seen. He can often then remove any gallstones that have moved into the ductsGallstones can lurk inside your gallbladder. Many people have gallstones and never know it. Gallstones are hard deposits in your gallbladder, a small organ that stores bile, which is a digestive fluid made in the liver. Gallstones may consist of cholesterol, salt, or bilirubin, which is discarded red blood cells. Gallstones range in size. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as an apricot.