Health Complications of Gallstones

Though the prevalence of gallstone disease varies worldwide, there are particularly high rates of occurrence in the United States, where an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the adult population suffers from gallstones. Not all gallstones cause complications—many adults with gallstones will live their entire life without ever experiencing any symptoms. However, gallstones can cause such severe symptoms and complications for others that gallbladder surgery is often necessary for treatment.

Gallstones are hardened deposits of digestive fluid that form within the gallbladder. Though the most common symptom of gallstones is biliary colic, this intermittent pain is typically self-limiting. However, gallstones do have the potential to cause more severe complications depending on the individual case.

Here are several complications that can arise from untreated gallstones.

Cholecystitis is caused by sudden obstruction of the body’s bile ducts by a gallstone and generally refers to inflammation of the gallbladder, which gradually leads to infection. Cholecystitis causes intermittent pain in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen, while inflammation extends through the gallbladder wall, making it extremely painful to move. An elevated white blood cell count as well as a fever typically accompanies cholecystitis.

Cholangitis refers to an infection of the common, hepatic and intrahepatic ducts that gradually spreads to the intestine. Fever and an elevated white blood cell count are common side-effects of cholangitis. Cholangitis may even result in sepsis or an abscess within the liver.

Jaundice is a condition in which bilirubin builds up within the body causing the skin and whites of the eye to appear yellow. Jaundice often develops as a result of bile-duct obstruction, which most typically occurs with gallstones, though other forms of obstruction may cause the condition as well.

Pancreatitis is often caused by untreated gallstones. Gallstones have the potential to block the flow of pancreatic juice to the bile ducts and intestine. This blockage results in inflammation within the pancreas and though most symptoms are mild, pancreatitis can cause serious illness and even death. However, more severe pancreatitis due to gallstones is typically rare.

Fistulas can form when gallstones erode through the soft walls of the gallbladder. Often, the gallstone erodes into the small intestine, stomach or bile duct, leaving a tract that allows bile to flow from the gallbladder to these other organs. If the fistula enters the distal part of the intestine, the concentrated bile can potentially lead to diarrhea. Though rare, erosion into the abdominal cavity by gallstones can cause inflammation of the abdominal lining due to a leak of bile from the gallbladder.

These are just several complications that gallstones can cause. While some people may never experience the above complications related to their gallstones, many of these complications are painful realities for others suffering from this condition. If you’re experiencing more severe or chronic complications with your gallbladder, or are unsure of what’s causing your pain, you may want to speak with your general surgeon for proper diagnosis.