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Classification and external resources

ICD-10 K80.
ICD-9 574
OMIM 600803
DiseasesDB 2533
MedlinePlus 000273
eMedicine emerg/97
MeSH D042882
Gall bladder opened to show numerous gallstones. Their brownish to greenish color suggest they are cholesterol calculi.

In medicine, gallstones (choleliths) are crystalline bodies formed within the body by accretion or concretion of normal or abnormal bile components.

Gallstones can occur anywhere within the biliary tree, including the gallbladder and the common bile duct. Obstruction of the common bile duct is choledocholithiasis; obstruction of the biliary tree can cause jaundice; obstruction of the outlet of the pancreatic exocrine system can cause pancreatitis. Cholelithiasis is the presence of stones in the gallbladder or bile ducts: chole- means "bile", lithia means "stone", and -sis means "process".





A gallstone's size can vary and may be as small as a sand grain or as large as a golf ball. The gallbladder may develop a single, often large stone or many smaller ones. They may occur in any part of the biliary system.



Gallstones have different appearance, depending on their contents. On the basis of their contents, gallstones can be subdivided into the two following types:

  • Cholesterol stones are usually green, but are sometimes white or yellow in color. They are made primarily of cholesterol, the proportion required for classification as a cholesterol stone being either 70% (Japanese classification system) or 80% (US system) [1]
  • Pigment stones are small, dark stones made of bilirubin and calcium salts that are found in bile. They contain less than 20% of cholesterol. Risk factors for pigment stones include hemolytic anemia, cirrhosis, biliary tract infections, and hereditary blood cell disorders, such as sickle cell anemia and spherocytosis.

The proportions of these different types of stone found varies between samples, and is thought to be affected by the age and ethnic or regional origin of the patients. [2]

Mixed stones

All stones are of mixed content to some extent. Those classified as mixed, however, contain between 30% and 70% of cholesterol. In most cases the other majority constituent is calcium salts such as calcium carbonate, palmitate phosphate, and/or bilirubinate. Because of their calcium content, they can often be visualized radiographically titi.


Also know as "Fake stones," they are sludge-like gallbladder secretions that act like a stone.

Ultrasound Scan ND 243.jpg


Researchers believe that gallstones may be caused by a combination of factors, including inherited body chemistry, body weight, gallbladder motility (movement), and perhaps diet.

Pigment gallstones

People with erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP) are at increased risk to develop gallstones.[3]

Conditions causing hemolytic anemia can cause pigment gallstones.[4]

Cholesterol gallstones

Cholesterol gallstones develop when bile contains too much cholesterol and not enough bile salts. Besides a high concentration of cholesterol, two other factors seem to be important in causing gallstones. The first is how often and how well the gallbladder contracts; incomplete and infrequent emptying of the gallbladder may cause the bile to become overconcentrated and contribute to gallstone formation. The second factor is the presence of proteins in the liver and bile that either promote or inhibit cholesterol crystallization into gallstones.

In addition, increased levels of the hormone estrogen as a result of pregnancy, hormone therapy, or the use of combined (estrogen-containing) forms of hormonal contraception, may increase cholesterol levels in bile and also decrease gallbladder movement, resulting in gallstone formation.

No clear relationship has been proven between diet and gallstone formation. However, low-fibre, high-cholesterol diets, and diets high in starchy foods have been suggested as contributing to gallstone formation. Other nutritional factors that may increase risk of gallstones include rapid weight loss, constipation, eating fewer meals per day, eating less fish, and low intakes of the nutrients folate, magnesium, calcium, and vitamin C.[5] On the other hand, wine and whole grain bread may decrease the risk of gallstones.[6]

The common mnemonic for gallstone risk factors refer to the "four F's": fat (i.e., overweight), forty (an age near or above 40), female, and fertile (pre-menopausal);[7] a fifth F, fair is sometimes added to indicate that the condition is more prevalent in Caucasians. The absence of these risk factors does not, however, preclude the formation of gallstones.

Interestingly, a lack of melatonin could significantly contribute to gallbladder stones, as melatonin both inhibits cholesterol secretion from the gallbladder, enhances the conversion of cholesterol to bile, and is an antioxidant, capable of reducing oxidative stress to the gallbladder.[8]


Gallstones usually remain asymptomatic initially.[9] They start developing symptoms once the stones reach a certain size (>8 mm).[10] A main symptom of gallstones is commonly referred to as a gallstone "attack", also known as biliary colic, in which a person will experience intense pain in the upper abdominal region that steadily increases for approximately thirty minutes to several hours. A patient may also experience pain in the back, ordinarily between the shoulder blades, or pain under the right shoulder. In some cases, the pain develops in the lower region of the abdomen, nearer to the pelvis, but this is less common.[citation needed] Nausea and vomiting may occur. Patients characteristically exhibit a positive Murphy's sign: the patient is instructed to breathe in while the gall bladder is deeply palpated. If the gallbladder is inflamed, the patient will abruptly stop inhaling due to the pain, a positive Murphy's sign.

These attacks are sharp and intensely painful, similar to that of a kidney stone attack. Often, attacks occur after a particularly fatty meal and almost always happen at night. Other symptoms include abdominal bloating, intolerance of fatty foods, belching, gas, and indigestion. The patient should also make sure they're drinking an appropriate amount of water relative to the number of calories being taken in.[11] If the above symptoms coincide with chills, lowgrade fever, yellowing of the skin or eyes, and/or clay-colored stool, a doctor should be consulted immediately.[12]

Some people who have gallstones are asymptomatic and do not feel any pain or discomfort. These gallstones are called "silent stones" and do not affect the gallbladder or other internal organs. They do not need treatment.[12]


Medical options

Cholesterol gallstones can sometimes be dissolved by oral ursodeoxycholic acid, but it may be required that the patient takes this medication for up to two years[13]. Gallstones may recur however, once the drug is stopped. Obstruction of the common bile duct with gallstones can sometimes be relieved by endoscopic retrograde sphincterotomy (ERS) following endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). Gallstones can be broken up using a procedure called lithotripsy (Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy)[13], which is a method of concentrating ultrasonic shock waves onto the stones to break them into tiny pieces. They are then passed safely in the feces. However, this form of treatment is only suitable when there are a small number of gallstones.

Surgical options

Cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) has a 99% chance of eliminating the recurrence of cholelithiasis. Only symptomatic patients must be indicated to surgery. The lack of a gall bladder does not seem to have any negative consequences in many people. However, there is a significant portion of the population — between 5 and 40% — who develop a condition called postcholecystectomy syndrome[14] which may cause gastrointestinal distress and persistent pain in the upper right abdomen. In addition, as many as 20% of patients develop chronic diarrhea.[15]

There are two surgical options for cholecystectomy:

  • Open cholecystectomy: This procedure is performed via an incision into the abdomen (laparotomy) below the right lower ribs. Recovery typically consists of 3–5 days of hospitalization, with a return to normal diet a week after release and normal activity several weeks after release.[16]
  • Laparoscopic cholecystectomy: This procedure, introduced in the 1980s,[17] is performed via three to four small puncture holes for a camera and instruments. Post-operative care typically includes a same-day release or a one night hospital stay, followed by a few days of home rest and pain medication.[16] Laparoscopic cholecystectomy patients can generally resume normal diet and light activity a week after release, with some decreased energy level and minor residual pain continuing for a month or two. Studies have shown that this procedure is as effective as the more invasive open cholecystectomy, provided the stones are accurately located by cholangiogram prior to the procedure so that they can all be removed. The procedure also has the benefit of reducing operative complications such as bowel perforation and vascular injury.[citation needed]

Value of animal gallstones

Gallstones are a valuable by-product of meat processing, fetching up to US$32–per–gram in their use as a purported antipyretic and antidote in the folk remedies of some cultures, particularly in China. The finest gallstones tend to be sourced from old dairy cows, which are called Niu-Huang (牛黄,yellow thing of oxen) in Chinese. Those obtained from dogs, called Gou-Bao (狗宝,treasure of dogs) in Chinese, are also used today. Much as in the manner of diamond mines, slaughterhouses carefully scrutinize offal department workers for gallstone theft.[18]


  1. ^ . Kim, I. S., Myung, S. J., Lee, S. S., Lee, S. K., Kim, M. H. (2003). Classification and nomenclature of gallstones revisited. Yonsei Medical Journal, 44, 561-570.
  2. ^ Channa, N. A., Khand, F. D., Khand, T. U., Leghari, M. H., Memon, A. N. (2007). Analysis of human gallstones by Fourier transform infrared. Pakistan Journal of Medical Science, 23, 546-550.
  3. ^ Erythropoietic Protoporphyria at Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy Home Edition
  4. ^
  5. ^ Ortega RM, Fernández-Azuela M, Encinas-Sotillos A, Andrés P, López-Sobaler AM (1997). "Differences in diet and food habits between patients with gallstones and controls". J Am Coll Nutr 16 (1): 88–95. PMID 9013440. 
  6. ^ Misciagna G, Leoci C, Guerra V, et al. (1996). "Epidemiology of cholelithiasis in southern Italy. Part II: Risk factors". Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol 8 (6): 585–93. doi:10.1097/00042737-199606000-00017. PMID 8823575. 
  7. ^ You--the Owner's Manual at Google Books
  8. ^
  9. ^ Cholelithiasis at eMedicine see Clinical Section
  10. ^ MedlinePlus Encyclopedia Gallstones Symptom section
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b "Gallstones". National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Retrieved 2007-08-25. 
  13. ^ a b "Gallstones Treatment". Health encyclopaedia - NHS Direct. 
  14. ^ "Postcholecystectomy syndrome". WebMD. Retrieved 2007-08-25. 
  15. ^ Picco, M. (2009). "Chronic diarrhea: A concern after gallbladder removal?". 
  16. ^ a b "Gallstones" (in English). National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. July 2007. Retrieved 2009-04-24. 
  17. ^ Keus, Frederik; Keus F, de Jong J, Gooszen HG, Laarhoven CJHM. (October 18, 2006). "Laparoscopic versus open cholecystectomy for patients with symptomatic cholecystolithiasis.". Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (Art. No.: CD006231) (Issue 4). doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006231. PMID 17054285. Retrieved 2009-04-24. 
  18. ^ "Interview with Darren Wise. Transcript". Sunday. Retrieved 2007-08-25. 

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