Gallstones are pieces of stone-like material which is formed when liquid stored in the gallbladder hardens. The liquid, called bile, is made in the liver and stored in the gallbladder until the body needs to digest fat.
Gallstones often produce no symptoms, are found accidentally, and need no treatment. However, gallbladder attacks can be severe. Most gallstones (about 80 percent or 8 out of 10) are cholesterol stones and the rest are pigment stones. Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand, and as large as a golf ball. Also, a person can have one large stone, hundreds of small stones, or any combination between the two. When gallstones block the bile ducts, they can cause inflammation in the gallbladder.
Gallstones occur twice as often in women, and are more common in people over 60 years of age, obese persons, in Native Americans and Mexican Americans, in persons who fast or rapidly lose weight, and women with excess estrogen such as pregnant women and women on hormone replacement therapy. Key Symptoms are upper abdominal and back pain, nausea and vomiting, indigestion, and yellowish skin or eyes (jaundice). Persons with symptoms of gallstones should see a physician for a complete evaluation and appropriate care. Key methods of treatment are surgery, and oral dissolution therapy (oral medicines to dissolve the gallstones), which treatment can take months or years.