Upper GI Discomfort? It May Be a Gallstone.

Stomach and gastrointestinal issues can be extremely uncomfortable, and gallstones are a frequent cause. While most gallstones do not cause any problems, people who do experience pain generally need their gallbladder removed. Gallbladder removal is one of the most common procedures performed, and the number of individuals suffering from gallbladder issues is increasing.

What is a gallstone?

A gallstone is a hardened deposit that can form in the gallbladder, a small organ on the right side of your abdomen that releases bile into your small intestine. Gallstones can range in size from microscopic specs to as big as a golf ball.

“There are two primary types of gallstones: cholesterol stones and pigment stones,” said Richard F. Latuska, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist with Penn Highlands Gastroenterology. “As the name suggests, cholesterol stones are made of hardened cholesterol, and they cause about 80% of gallstones. Pigment stones, on the other hand, are made of bilirubin, and orangish pigment that naturally occurs when red blood cells break down.”

What causes gallstones?

Scientists do not know the exact cause of gallstones, but research shows that gallstones may occur when there is too much cholesterol or bilirubin in your bile. Cholesterol usually dissolves in bile, but if something prevents it from dissolving, it can form a gallstone. Your bile may have too much bilirubin if you have a condition like cirrhosis, infections or blood disorders. Gallstones can also occur when the gallbladder does not completely empty.

What are the symptoms of gallstones?

Gallstones may not cause any symptoms until they become lodged in a duct, at which point it will cause pain and will need treatment right away. Pain can last anywhere from several minutes to a few hours at a time.

Symptoms may include:

  • Quickly intensifying pain in the upper right of the abdomen or the center of the abdomen.
  • Back pain between your shoulder blades.
  • Pain in your right shoulder.
  • Nausea or vomiting.

Who is at risk for gallstones?

Women, diabetics, people over the age of 40 and individuals of Native American or Mexican descent are at a greater risk for gallstones. You may also be at a greater risk if you have a family history of gallstones, are obese, eat a diet high in fat and cholesterol but low in fiber, do not exercise routinely, use birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, are pregnant or take medicine to lower your cholesterol (such as fenofibrate).

How are gallstones treated?

Some small gallstones pass through the body naturally, and typically if you do not have symptoms you do not need treatment. If you do experience symptoms, surgery may be recommended. Fortunately, you can still digest food and live an otherwise normal life without a gallbladder.

Gallbladder surgery is usually performed through laparoscopic cholecystectomy or open cholecystectomy. In laparoscopic cholecystectomy, the surgeon makes a small incision in the abdomen and removes the gallbladder. Most laparoscopic cholecystectomy patients go home the same day. In an open cholecystectomy, a larger incision is used to remove the gallbladder and requires a hospital stay of a few days.

When should you see a doctor?

If you experience any of the symptoms above, pain that lasts for hours, yellowing of the skin or eyes, or a fever with chills, seek medical attention immediately.

Penn Highlands Healthcare offers comprehensive diagnosis and treatment for diseases of the gallbladder, stomach, esophagus, small intestine, colon and rectum, pancreas, bile ducts and liver. The digestive health specialists at Penn Highlands provide everything from routine care, including colonoscopies to check for colorectal cancer, to the most complex GI issues, such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). To learn more visit