An in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of gallstones.
Cholecystitis; Choledocholithiasis; Bile duct stones
About 90% of gallstones cause no symptoms. There is a very small (2%) chance of developing pain during the first 10 years after gallstones form. After 10 years, the chance for developing symptoms declines. On average, symptoms take about 8 years to develop. The reason for the decline in symptoms after 10 years is not known, although some doctors suggest that "younger," smaller stones may be more likely to cause symptoms than larger, older ones. Acalculous gallbladder disease will often cause symptoms similar to those of gallbladder stones.
The mildest and most common symptom of gallbladder disease is intermittent pain called biliary colic, which occurs either in the mid- or the right portion of the upper abdomen. Symptoms may be fairly nonspecific. A typical attack has several features:
Digestive complaints such as belching, feeling unusually full after meals, bloating, heartburn (burning feeling behind the breast bone), or regurgitation (acid back-up in the food pipe) are not likely to be caused by gallbladder disease. Conditions that may cause these symptoms include peptic ulcer, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or indigestion of unknown cause. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #19 Peptic ulcers and In-Depth Report #85 Gastroesophageal reflux disease.]
Between 1 and 3% of people with symptomatic gallstones develop inflammation in the gallbladder (acute cholecystitis), which occurs when stones or sludge block the duct. The symptoms are similar to those of biliary colic but are more persistent and severe. They include the following:
Anyone who experiences such symptoms should seek medical attention. Acute cholecystitis can progress to gangrene or perforation of the gallbladder if left untreated. Infection develops in about 20% of patients with acute cholecystitis, and increases the danger from this condition. People with diabetes are at particular risk for serious complications.
Chronic gallbladder disease (chronic cholecystitis) involves gallstones and mild inflammation. In such cases the gallbladder may become scarred and stiff. Symptoms of chronic gallbladder disease include the following:
Stones lodged in the common bile duct can cause symptoms that are similar to those produced by stones that lodge in the gallbladder, but they may also cause the following symptoms:
As in acute cholecystitis, patients who have these symptoms should seek medical help immediately. They may require emergency treatment.
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