gallstones doctor


Gallstones are very common, however, only some people develop symptoms
If you start to experience symptoms, specialist healthcare is available to remove the gallstones and help you to feel better again. On occasions, when gallstones are not treated sufficiently, more serious problems can arise so early diagnosis and specialist treatment is vital.

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Consultation with a specialist and diagnosis is the first step to feeling better

    What Causes Gallstones?

    Bile is produced by the liver to help digest fats. It is stored in the gallbladder which releases bile into the digestive system when required. It is believed that gallstones are caused by an imbalance in the components of bile, leading to the formation of stones which may be cholesterol stones, pigment stones or mixed stones.

    Risk Factors for Gallstones?

    It is estimated that 5-10% or more of adults in the UK have gallstones, however, the majority will show no symptoms. It is three times more common in women than in men.
    The risk of developing gallstones increases for:

    • Being overweight or obese
    • Women who have had children
    • People who are over the age of 40

    Gallstones can be harmless but can also have complications. We recommend booking a consultation with  GI doctors so we can recommend the best treatment to make you feel better.

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    Symptoms of Gallstones
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    You might start getting symptoms if one or more gallstones enters one of your tubes connecting the liver to the gallbladder (cystic duct or the bile duct). Gallstones can escape into and block another part of the digestive system. The main symptom of gallstone disease is known as biliary colic.

    This typically presents with:

    A sudden and severe pain in your abdomen, which isn’t relieved by going to the toilet, passing wind or being sick, and often after a fatty meal. Pain is usually gripey in nature and is typically located in the upper part of your tummy, or on the right-hand side of your body, just under the ribs. Occasionally the pain will move to your shoulder blade. The pain may last for several hours.

    You may experience an episode of biliary colic and then feel fine for several weeks, or even months before another episode occurs. Whilst these symptoms can be painful, they are generally considered to represent “uncomplicated” gallstone disease.

    Diagnosis of Gallstones

    Diagnosis begins with a consultation with a doctor to determine the exact nature of your symptoms. They may use one or more of the following tests:

    Ultrasound scan
    – high-frequency sound waves which can usually confirm gallstones
    MRI scan – magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses magnetic fields to assess for gallstones in the bile ducts
    Cholangiography – uses a dye that shows on special imaging. The dye may be administered into your bloodstream, direct into the bile duct during surgery, or via an endoscope. The dye can detect any blockages in the liver, bile ducts, gallbladder or intestine.
    CT scan – is sometimes used to look for complications of gallstones, including acute pancreatitis

    Treatment of Gallstones

    The treatment of gallstone disease depends on the nature and severity of the condition. If gallstones are not causing significant pain they can sometimes be left alone, and monitored to ensure they don’t grow or worsen. Or, if they are small and don’t contain calcium then it is sometimes possible to take ursodeoxycholic acid tablets to dissolve them, although this isn’t always effective.

    If surgery is required to remove your gallbladder there are a number of types of procedure:

    Keyhole surgery (laparoscopic cholecystectomy)
    Here 3-4 small incisions are made in your abdomen. In one incision, a laparoscope is inserted that makes it possible for the surgeon to see inside your body with a light and camera. Using special surgical instruments the gallbladder can be removed through the other incisions. This procedure is performed under a general anaesthetic and usually takes 60-90 minutes. It is usually possible to go home the same day, although recovery may take up to 10 days.

    Single incision keyhole surgery
    Here only one incision is required for surgery, resulting in just one small scar following the procedure. It is a new technique and isn’t widely available as it requires specialist expertise from the surgeon. We offer single-incision laparoscopic cholecystectomy.

    Open surgery
    Sometimes using keyhole surgery techniques may not be possible and open surgery is required. This can be if you have had multiple previous abdominal operations, or the gall bladder anatomy is more complicated than in a typical person. Open surgery typically requires a longer hospital stay and recovery times.

    Endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP)
    ERCP is an endoscopic procedure used to remove gallstones from the bile duct passing a camera through the mouth, into the stomach and through the duodenum into the bile ducts. This procedure is usually performed with sedation but can be performed under general anaesthetic depending on the complexity of the case and the patient’s wishes.

    Complications of Gallstones
    Acute Cholecystitis

    A gallstone can block a bile duct resulting in a build-up of bile inside the gallbladder. This can lead to infection and cause you to experience; severe and constant abdominal pain that can travel to the shoulder blade, usually lasting longer than 5 hours, a fever over 38C and a raised and rapid heartbeat. Antibiotics and bed rest are usually required to treat the infection in almost all cases the gallbladder will need to be removed.

    Acute Cholangitis

    Bacteria can easily infect blocked bile ducts. Symptoms may include:

    • Abdominal pain that travels to your shoulder blade
    • A high temperature, fluctuating to chills
    • Jaundice
    • Confusion
    • Itching

    Here, antibiotics are usually required to treat the infection but there is also usually a requirement for treatment to drain the excess bile that built-up in the liver. This procedure is known as endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP).

    Acute pancreatitis

    If the gallstone escapes the gallbladder and blocks the tube that drains the pancreas, this can cause a severe inflammation called acute pancreatitis.

    The most common symptoms include:

    • Sudden, severe dull pain in the upper abdomen
    • Pain usually gets progressively worse until it aches persistently, and is associated with a backache
    • Eating may make worsen the pain

    Other symptoms may include:

    • Severe nausea and vomiting
    • Diarrhoea
    • Loss of appetite
    • A fever over 38C
    • Marked abdominal tenderness
    • Jaundice

    Acute pancreatitis usually requires hospital admission to support the various body functions until the inflammation settles down and the stone has passed.

    Cancer of the Gallbladder

    Cancer of the gallbladder is an extremely rare condition. Four out of five people that develop gallbladder cancer will have had a history of gallstones. There are fewer than 1,000 cases of gallbladder cancer diagnosed each year in the UK, and even if you have a history of gallstones, there would be an estimated one in 10,000 chance of it developing into cancer of the gallbladder.

    Other risk factors include:

    • Family history of gallbladder cancer
    • High calcium levels inside your gallbladder

    Symptoms are similar to other complications of gallstones so it is important to seek a diagnosis from a specialist to determine the exact nature of your symptoms.


    Jaundice is when a gallstone escapes the gallbladder into the bile duct, blocking the flow of bile.

    Symptoms include:

    • Yellow colouring of the skin and eyes
    • Dark brown urine and pale stools
    • Itchy skin

    If the stone does not pass through and out of the bile duct on its own, intervention may be needed in the form of an endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP), which is a flexible camera test performed through the mouth to extract the stone(s).

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