Gallstones are a common condition and generally present with symptoms of pain and/or jaundice.

They are formed from the constituents of bile and vary in size from a few millimetres to several centimetres in diameter. They can occur at any age but their incidence increases with age so that between 50 and 60 years of age about 20% of women and 5% of men are affected. Gallstones cause symptoms by causing obstruction to the gallbladder or bile passages.

The most common presentation is biliary colic (recurrent pain in the upper right side of the abdomen). This is a cramping pain caused by a gallstone preventing the gallbladder from emptying - often in response to a meal.

Sometimes the obstructed bile becomes infected (cholecystitis) and the patient develops fevers and constant abdominal pain. Obstruction of the bile passages also causes biliary colic type pain but also results in the development of jaundice. Rarely gallstones can cause inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) or obstruction of the bowel.

Most commonly gallstones are diagnosed with an ultrasound examination and blood tests. Treatment is usually removal of the gallbladder using keyhole surgery (laparoscopic cholecystectomy) and occasional endoscopic removal of gallstones from the bile duct (ERCP).

For more information see Gastroenterology Society of Australia website.