An estimated 16 to 20 million people in the United States have gallstones. Most of the stones are so tiny that they are literally flushed through the digestive system without any symptoms.
Gallstones develop in the gallbladder, which is a small pear-shaped organ located on the right side of the body below the liver. It is connected to the liver and the intestines via small tubes or ducts. The gallbladder is used as a storage tank for bile that is produced by the liver. Bile is an enzymatic fluid, or digestive juice, that helps the body break down foods that are high in fat. When fatty foods are eaten, bile moves through the ducts into the small intestine to aid in digestion.
Bile is composed of a combination of elements such as water, cholesterol, fats, bile salts, and bilirubin. If this mixture becomes unbalanced, for instance, by containing too much cholesterol, crystals form and harden in the gallbladder. If the crystals, or gallstones, continue to grow, extreme pain will be felt when they pass through the tiny openings of the ducts and into the small intestine.
Symptoms of gallstones can include a steady and severe pain in the upper abdomen, nausea, and vomiting. Management by a doctor is needed for the treatment of gallstones.