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Gallstones

The gallbladder is an organ that sits below the liver. Its function is to store excess bile that is produced by the liver. Bile helps to break down fats in the intestines. When we eat, the gallbladder contracts to squeeze bile into the small intestine.

About 10% - 15% of Australian adults have gallstones. They are more common in women than men. The majority of people with gallstones won’t realise they have them and will not have a problem.  Diagnosis of gallstones may involve blood tests, an ultrasound, and sometimes a CT scan.

Gallstones are made of cholesterol and bile salts. They can vary in size from that of a grain of sand, through to many centimetres. Gallstones can block the flow of bile into the intestines, causing pain. Other symptoms may include bloating, nausea, vomiting and indigestion.

There are a number of other serious complications that can be caused by gallstones including cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder), pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) and cholangitis (infection in the bile ducts).

Risk factors for developing gallstones include:

  • Female gender
  • High levels of oestrogens (due to pregnancy, oral contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy)
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Drugs that lower cholesterol levels
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Some ethnic groups

Don’t I need a gallbladder?

No. The gallbladder aids in storing bile, not producing it. The liver produces adequate bile that will continue to trickle into the intestines to help digest fats. In theory, if you were to consume a very large concentration of fat in a single sitting, some of the fat will go undigested and you could develop bloating and diarrhoea. The vast majority of people do not need to change their diet after having a gallbladder removed.

Surgery for gallstones

Nearly 50,000 gallbladders are removed in Australia every year. The procedure is called a cholecystectomy. This is almost always done with keyhole surgery (laparoscopic cholecystectomy). Surgeons make a few small incisions to allow the insertion of a camera and instruments into your abdominal cavity to remove the gallbladder. The small incisions heal quickly and the majority of people have a very short stay in hospital.

Dr Lancashire will be able to explain the risks of gallbladder surgery, and the risks of leaving your gallstones untreated.