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What are gallstones and how to treat them?

Woman sitting on edge of bed, holding abdomen in pain
In most cases, gallstones don’t cause any issues. But if symptoms or complications arise, medical treatment may be necessary.

Anyone who’s ever experienced severe complications from gallstones will describe the agonising, cramping sensation in the abdomen with a shudder - a pain that can last for hours at a time and can be accompanied by jaundice, nausea, or vomiting.

Most people who have gallstones will not experience symptoms and may not be aware of their presence. However, in about 30 percent of cases, gallstones will cause complications that can be incredibly painful.

What are gallstones?

Gallstones are hardened deposits of digestive fluid that can form in your gallbladder, a small organ on the right side of your abdomen, beneath your liver.

You’re more at risk of gallstones if you’re female, aged over 40, overweight or obese, are pregnant or have recently been pregnant.

Mary’s experience with gallstones

Mary was 29 when she first experienced biliary colic, a few months after the birth of her first child.

“I’d recently had a child when I first had a gallbladder attack, and I had no idea what was going on.  My husband called an ambulance but soon after that, I vomited and the pain passed, so we cancelled it. I went to the GP the next morning, but they weren’t able to diagnose the problem at that stage,” Mary explained.

Mary experienced ongoing low-level aching in her abdomen, particularly after meals, before suffering another severe episode of pain a month later.

“It was night time and I felt a sharp pain in my abdomen come on, which quickly became worse. It felt like my insides were tying themselves in knots and it was absolute agony. At the time, I remember thinking it felt worse than childbirth.”

This time, Mary ended up in the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, where she was diagnosed with cholecystitis and treated for the pain and infection. A decision was made to remove her gallbladder and she was later admitted to hospital to have a laparoscopic cholecystectomy – a keyhole removal of her gallbladder.

Close up of a slice of a cheesy pepperoni pizza

What are the symptoms and complications of gallstones?

In most cases, gallstones don’t cause any problems – you may not even be aware you have them. Your body will also likely pass them naturally without you being aware of it. However, in about 30 percent of cases, gallstones will cause issues and require treatment.

The most common complication happens when gallstones get blocked in the neck of your gallbladder (or cystic duct).

This can cause pain, known as biliary colic, as the body tries to pass the stones through the duct. Biliary colic is typically felt in the abdomen and back and tends to increase in intensity after eating a fatty meal.

One complication is jaundice, which is frequently seen as a yellow discolouration in the whites of the eyes. Jaundice occurs when the stone blocks the duct that carries the bile to your gut.

Gallstones can cause cholecystitis, a condition where the gallbladder becomes inflamed and infected. This causes severe pain and is often accompanied by fever, nausea, and vomiting. It’s important to seek medical attention if you experience these symptoms, as cholecystitis can lead on to other more severe complications.

Another serious complication of gallstones is a condition called pancreatitis. This happens when a stone gets stuck in the tubing near the gut, resulting in the pancreas becoming inflamed. This requires urgent medical intervention.

How are gallstones treated?

Medical treatment for gallstones isn’t generally necessary until you experience symptoms.

In the early stages of experiencing biliary colic, you may be advised to avoid fatty foods to reduce your symptoms. However, about 80 percent of people with gallstone symptoms will need surgery.

Anyone experiencing symptoms of gallstone attack is advised to see their GP, or to present to the nearest hospital if the pain doesn’t disappear after a few hours.

Last updated: 31 July 2019