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Understanding Gallstones -- Diagnosis and Treatment

Nonsurgical Therapy for Gallstones continued...

Some gallstones can be dissolved through the use of a bile salt, although the procedure can be used only with stones formed from cholesterol and not from bile pigments. The drug Actigall (ursodiol) is taken as a tablet; depending on its size, the gallstone may take months or even years to go away, and often people need to take this medication indefinitely.

Another nonsurgical technique, shock wave therapy, uses high-frequency sound waves to fragment the stones. Bile salt is administered afterward to dissolve small pieces.

A method called contact dissolution can also be used to dissolve gallstones. The doctor inserts a catheter through the abdomen, and then injects a special drug directly into the gallbladder. In many cases, the stone disappears within a few hours. Contact dissolution and shock wave therapy are still considered experimental.

Doctors can also attempt to remove gallstones during an ERCP. During the procedure an instrument is inserted through the endoscope to attempt removal of the stone.

While these therapies may work for some, all of the above nonsurgical therapies are usually unsuccessful long term (since recurrence is common) and are rarely advised in clinical practice.

Surgery to Remove the Gallbladder

While the gallbladder serves an important function, it is not essential for a normal, healthy life. When gallstones are persistently troublesome, doctors often recommend removing the organ entirely. This operation is considered among the safest of all surgical procedures. Each year approximately 750,000 Americans have their gallbladder removed. It is also the only treatment method that eliminates the possibility that other gallstones will develop in the future.

When the gallbladder has been removed, bile flows directly from the liver into the small intestine, and this sometimes leads to diarrhea. Because bile no longer accumulates in the gallbladder, quantities of the digestive fluid cannot be stored up and used to break down an especially fatty meal. This condition is not considered serious, however, and can be corrected by simply limiting fat in the diet.

In the past, removal of the gallbladder was done through traditional "open" surgery, which requires surgeons to make a large incision in the abdomen. Patients faced a two- or three-day hospital stay plus several weeks of recovery at home.

Today, however, the most commonly used surgical technique is a much simpler approach known as laparoscopic cholecystectomy. The doctor makes several small incisions in the abdomen, then uses special pencil-thin instruments to remove the gallbladder. A tiny microscope and video camera, snaked through the incision to the site, allow the surgeon to view the operation.

Laparoscopic surgery is highly effective and very safe. It has reduced the hospital stay to a day or two. Patients report less pain and are generally able to resume a normal lifestyle in a short period of time. However, people who are obese or who have a severe infection or inflammation in the gallbladder may still be considered candidates for traditional open surgery.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on April 05, 2014

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