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What are gallstones?

Gallstones, also called cholelithiasis, are hard substances that form in your gallbladder. Your gallbladder is located on the right side of your abdomen, near your liver. Your gallbladder stores bile, which helps break down the fat that you eat. Your gallbladder also helps remove certain chemicals from your body.

What causes gallstones?

Gallstones develop when your gallbladder does not empty correctly. Stones can form from different bile materials. The following may increase your risk:

  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Having a family member with gallstones
  • Diabetes or previous surgery of the intestines
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Certain medicines, such as estrogen, antibiotics, and cholesterol-lowering medicines

What are the signs and symptoms of gallstones?

The most common symptom is severe, constant pain in the right upper abdomen. It is usually just below the ribcage. The pain may also be felt in the right shoulder and between the shoulder blades. You may also have any of the following:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Feeling bloated
  • Pale bowel movements
  • Dark urine

How are gallstones diagnosed?

  • Blood tests may show signs of infection or inflammation.
  • An abdominal ultrasound uses sound waves to show pictures of your abdomen on a monitor.
  • A liver and gallbladder scan may also be called a HIDA scan. You are given a small amount of radioactive dye in your IV and pictures are taken by a scanner. Your healthcare provider looks at the pictures to see if your liver and gallbladder are working normally.
  • An ERCP is also called an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography. This test is done during an endoscopy to find stones, tumors, or other problems. Dye is put into the endoscopy tube. The dye helps your pancreas and bile ducts show up better on x-rays. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. If you have stones, they may be removed during ERCP.
  • Oral cholecystography is a test to look at your gallbladder and its ducts (passages). You will take pills that have a special dye in them. Then x-rays are taken over time. The dye makes your gallbladder and its ducts show up on the x-rays. This may make it easier for your healthcare provider to see any stones or swelling in your gallbladder. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. It is also very important to tell your healthcare provider if there is any chance you could be pregnant. Your healthcare provider will tell you what you can and cannot eat before the test. It is important to follow your healthcare provider's instructions or the test may not work.

How are gallstones treated?

  • Antinausea medicine may be given to calm your stomach and to help prevent vomiting.
  • Prescription pain medicine may be given. Ask your healthcare provider how to take this medicine safely.
  • A cholecystectomy is surgery to remove your gallbladder.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have nausea and are vomiting.
  • Your urine is dark.
  • You have clay-colored bowel movements.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You have a fever and chills.
  • Your eyes or skin turn yellow.
  • You have severe pain in your upper abdomen, just below the right ribcage.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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