Gallstones are small stones, usually made of cholesterol, that form in the gallbladder.
If a gallstone becomes trapped in an opening (duct) inside the gallbladder, it can trigger a sudden, intense abdominal pain that usually lasts between one and five hours. This type of abdominal pain is known as biliary colic.
Some people with gallstones can also develop complications, such as inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis), which can cause:
When gallstones cause symptoms or complications, it's known as gallstone disease or cholelithiasis.
The gallbladder is a small, pouch-like organ found underneath the liver. Its main purpose is to store and concentrate bile.
Bile is a liquid produced by the liver to help digest fats. It's passed from the liver into the gallbladder through a series of channels known as bile ducts.
The bile is stored in the gallbladder and, over time, it becomes more concentrated, which makes it better at digesting fats. The gallbladder releases bile into the digestive system when it's needed.
Gallstones are thought to develop because of an imbalance in the chemical make-up of bile inside the gallbladder. In most cases the levels of cholesterol in bile become too high and the excess cholesterol forms into stones.
Gallstones are very common. It's estimated that more than 1 in every 10 adults in the UK has gallstones, although only a minority of people develop symptoms.
You're more at risk of developing gallstones if you're:
If surgery is recommended, you'll usually have keyhole surgery to remove your gallbladder. This is known as a laparoscopic cholecystectomy.
During a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, three or four small cuts are made in your abdomen. One larger cut (about 2-3cm) will be by the belly button and the others (each 1cm or less) will be on the right side of your abdomen.
Your abdomen is temporarily inflated using carbon dioxide gas. This is harmless and makes it easier for the surgeon to see your organs.
A laparoscope (long thin telescope with a tiny light and video camera at the end) is inserted through one of the cuts in your abdomen. This allows your surgeon to view the operation on a video monitor. Your surgeon will then remove your gallbladder using special surgical instruments.
If the operation can't be done this way or an unexpected complication occurs, it may have to be converted to open surgery (see below).
After the gallbladder has been removed, the gas in your abdomen escapes through the laparoscope and the cuts are closed with dissolvable stitches and covered with dressings.
Laparoscopic cholecystectomies are usually performed under a general anaesthetic, which means you'll be asleep during the procedure and won't feel any pain while it's carried out. The operation takes 60-90 minutes and you can usually go home the same day. Full recovery typically takes around 10 days.