What Are Gall Stones?
Gall stones are pieces of solid material that form in the gallbladder.
The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ located beneath the liver on the right side of the abdomen. The gallbladder's primary functions are to store and concentrate bile, and secrete bile into the small intestine at the proper time to help digest food.
The gallbladder is connected to the liver and the small intestine by a series of ducts, or tube-shaped structures, that carry bile. Collectively, the gallbladder and these ducts are called the biliary system. Bile is a yellow-brown fluid produced by the liver. In addition to water, bile contains cholesterol, lipids (fats), bile salts (natural detergents that break up fat), and bilirubin (the bile pigment that gives bile and stools their color). The liver can produce as much as three cups of bile in one day, and at any one time, the gallbladder cans tore up to a cup of concentrated bile.
As food passes from the stomach into the small intestine, the gallbladder contracts and sends its stored bile into the small intestine through the common bile duct. Once in the small intestine, bile helps digest fats in foods. Under normal circumstances, most bile is recirculated in the digestive tract by being absorbed in the intestine and returning to the liver in the bloodstream.
Gallstones are pieces of solid material that form in the gallbladder. Gallstones form when substances in the bile, primarily cholesterol and bile pigments, form hard, crystal-like particles. Cholesterol stones are usually white or yellow in color and account for about 80 percent of gallstones. They are made primarily of cholesterol. Pigment stones are small, dark stones made of bilirubin and calcium salts that are found in bile. They account for the other 20 percent of gallstones.
Risk factors of pigment stones include cirrhosis, biliary tract infections, and hereditary blood cell disorders, such as sickle cell anemia. Gallstones vary in size and may be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball. The gallbladder may develop a single, often large, stone or many smaller ones, even several thousands.
Most people with gallstones do not have symptoms. They have what are called silent stones. Studies show that most people with silent stones remain symptom free for years and require no treatment. Silent stones usually are detected during a routine medical checkup or examination for another illness. A gallstone attach usually is marked by a steady, severe pain in the upper abdomen. Attacks may last only 20 to 30 minutes but more often they last for one to several hours. Attacks may be separated by weeks, months, or even years. Once a true attack occurs, subsequent attacks are much more likely.
A less common but more serious problem occurs if the gallstones become lodged in the bile ducts between the liver and the intestine. This condition can block bile flow from the gallbladder and liver, causing pain and jaundice. Gallstones may also interfere with the flow of digestive fluids secreted from the pancreas into the small intestine, leading to pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas.
When actually looking for gallstones, the most common diagnostic tool is ultrasound. An ultrasound examination, also known as ultrasonography, uses sound waves. Ultrasound has several advantages. It is a noninvasive technique, which means nothing is injected into or penetrates the body. Ultrasound is painless, has no known side effects and does not involve radiation.