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Gallstones and Bile Duct Stones

What are gallstones?

Gallstones, which are created in the gallbladder, form when substances in the bile create hard, crystal-like particles. Cholesterol stones, as the name implies, are made of cholesterol and appear light in color. Eighty percent of gallstones are formed this way.

Pigment stones are small, dark stones made of bilirubin and calcium salts that are found in bile. About twenty percent of gallstones are pigment stones. Risk factors for pigment stones include:

Gallstones vary in size. They may be as small as a grain of sand, or as large as a golf ball. The gallbladder may develop a single, often large, stone or many smaller ones. It may even develop several thousand stones.

What are bile duct stones?

Gallstones that move out of the gallbladder can pass into your stomach. However, a stone may become lodged in your bile duct due to the size of the stone or the anatomy of the biliary tree. Bile duct stones are gallbladder stones that have become lodged in the bile duct. Stones that lodge in the ducts that lead to the duodenum can be painful, and dangerous.

What causes gallstones?

Progress has been made in understanding the process of gallstone formation. Gallstones may be caused by:

A color illustration showing Gallstones (and Bile Duct Stones) in the pancreatic biliary system.

Cholesterol gallstones

When the bile contains too much cholesterol and not enough bile salts, cholesterol gallstones may develop. Besides a high concentration of cholesterol, two other factors seem to be important in causing gallstones.

Gallbladder motility refers to the movement of the gallbladder. This small but muscular organ squeezes to force bile into the bile duct. If the gallbladder does not function normally, bile may remain in the gallbladder, and become concentrated, causing tiny crystals to form.

Proteins in the liver and bile may also be a factor in creating gallstones. These proteins may either promote cholesterol crystallization into gallstones.

Other factors also seem to play a role in causing gallstones but how is not clear.

No clear relationship has been proven between gallstone formation and a particular diet.

Who is at risk for gallstones?

Gallstones affect about one million people every year.They will join the estimated 20 million Americans —roughly 10 percent of the population— who already have gallstones.

Those who are most likely to develop gallstones are:

What are the symptoms of gallstones?

A person with gallstones may have no symptoms at all. They have what are called “silent stones”. Studies show that most people with silent stones remain symptom free for years and require no treatment. Silent stones may go undiagnosed until they begin to cause discomfort.

For those that are not quite so lucky, the symptoms my include:

Attacks may be separated by weeks, months, or even years. Once a true attack occurs, subsequent attacks are much more likely.

What problems can occur?

A common complication cause by gallstones is blockage of the cystic duct. Sometimes gallstones may make their way out of the gallbladder and into the cystic duct, the channel through which bile travels from the gallbladder to the small intestine. If stones become lodged in the cystic duct and block the flow of bile, they can cause an inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis).

A less common but more serious problem occurs if the gallstones become lodged in the bile ducts between the liver and the intestine. This condition, called cholangitis, can block bile flow from the gallbladder and liver, causing pain, jaundice and fever.

Gallstones may also interfere with the flow of digestive fluids into the small intestine, leading to an inflammation of the pancreas, or pancreatitis. Prolonged blockage of any of these ducts can cause severe damage to the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas which can be fatal.

How are gallstones diagnosed?

Diagnostic methods for detecting gallstones may include:

When actually looking for gallstones, the most common diagnostic tool is ultrasound. An ultrasound examination, also known as ultrasonography, uses sound waves. Pulses of sound waves are sent into the abdomen to create an image of the gallbladder. If stones are present, the sound waves will bounce off the stones, revealing their location.

Ultrasound has several advantages.

Other tests may be needed sometimes to detect small stones (or make sure they are not present).

Other gallbladder diseases

Pain and inflammation of the gallbladder can occur in the absence of gallstones.

Acalculus cholecystitis

Acalculus cholecystitis, or inflammation of the gallbladder without stones, may occur in conjunction with other severe illnesses. This condition occurs when the gallbladder fluids become infected as a result of being stagnant during a long illness.

Biliary dyskinesia

Biliary dyskinesia, or disordered function of the gallbladder, describes a condition in which the gallbladder cannot empty properly due to inflammation or spasm of its drainage system (the cystic duct). When you eat a meal, the gallbladder is prompted to contract, and in doing so, bile is forced into the duodenum. If the gallbladder cannot contract, the pressure exerted on the gallbladder causes pain.

These two conditions can be diagnosed by a scanning technique using radioactive isotopes, usually referred to as an HIDA scan. This shows whether the gallbladder is blocked, or cannot drain completely. These conditions are treated in the same way as gallbladder stones.

Gallbladder cancer

Cancer can develop in the wall of the gallbladder. It appears to be more common in patients with gallstones. Unfortunately, it often does not cause symptoms until the cancer has spread to the liver or adjacent bile duct. Surgical removal is recommended if technically feasible.



Each year more than 500,000 Americans have gallbladder surgery. This surgery, called cholecystectomy, is the most common method for treating gallstones despite the development of some nonsurgical techniques. There are two types of cholecystectomy: the standard “open” cholecystectomy; and, a less invasive procedure called laparoscopic cholecystectomy.

Open Cholecystectomy

The standard cholecystectomy is a major abdominal surgery in which the surgeon removes the gallbladder through a 5-to-8 inch incision. The person will remain in the hospital for about a week, and convalesce at home for several weeks after.

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is a more minimally invasive method of gallbladder removal. About 95 percent of cholecystectomies are done that way. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy requires several small incisions in the abdomen to allow the insertion of surgical instruments and a small video camera. The camera sends a magnified image from inside the body to a video monitor, giving the surgeon a close-up view of the organs and tissues. The surgeon watches the monitor and performs the operation by manipulating the surgical instruments through separate small incisions.

Laparoscopic cholecystectomy does not require the abdominal muscles to be cut, and thus results in less pain, quicker healing, improved cosmetic results, and fewer complications such as infection. Recovery usually requires only a night in the hospital, and several days recuperation at home.

Non-surgical approaches

Several methods are available, but are used only in special circumstances.

Patients with acute inflammation of the gallbladder (and acalculus cholecystitis) may sometimes be treated first with “percutaneous drainage.” This involves passing a needle and tube, called a catheter, through the abdominal wall directly into the gallbladder, to drain the toxic fluids. Cholecystectomy is performed after the acute situation has settled.

Gallstones which are predominantly made of cholesterol can be slowly “dissolved” with special medicines, made from the acids found naturally in bile. This medical treatment works only when the gallbladder is not blocked, and is more effective with small stones. However, treatment usually requires many months or years (and stones may return when the treatment is stopped). Thus, it is used only rarely in certain individuals who cannot tolerate surgery.

Extracorporeal shockwave lithotripsy (ESWL) is an excellent method for treating stones in the kidneys. It can be used also to break up stones in the gallbladder (the fragments from which then pass spontaneously through into the intestine). However, ESWL often requires several treatments, and has other drawbacks, including the possibility of stone recurrence. It is used only in very rare circumstances.

Treatment of bile duct stones

A bile duct stone as seen on ERCP.
A bile duct stone as seen on ERCP.

Approximately 10% of patients with stones in the gallbladder also have stones in the bile duct. These can cause acute blockage to the bile duct with “cholangitis” (with infection and jaundice), or acute pancreatitis. When blockage can cause life threatening illness, emergency treatment is best applied with ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography). The gastroenterologist passes an endoscope down to the bile duct opening, and then releases the stone into the duodenum with a small cutting incision (sphincterotomy).

There are many options for treating stones in the bile duct which are not causing severe symptoms. They can be removed with the gallbladder at the time of traditional “open cholecystectomy.” Whilst some experts can remove bile duct stones during the newer less invasive “laparoscopic” cholecystectomy, this technique of laparoscopic common bile duct exploration is available only in a few specialist centers. Thus, there is an increasing tendency to use a combination approach – laparoscopic cholecystectomy for the gallbladder stones, and ERCP for the stones in the bile duct. ERCP is used beforehand when it is obvious from the clinical presentation and tests that a stone is present. ERCP can be performed after laparoscopic cholecystectomy when the bile duct stone is found during the operation (by doing an “operative cholangiogram” X-ray).

The above information is adapted from the publication "Gallstones" distributed by the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (2 Information Way, Bethesda, MD 20892).

Page last updated 06/23/2014.
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