What Do Gallstones Feel Like?
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Gallstones are common and most have no symptoms.
But, in some cases, these hard, stone-like buildups of bile can block or slow the flow of digestive fluids through the biliary tract and lead to discomfort, pain or other complications.
These deposits, also called bile stones, form when the gallbladder doesn’t empty completely or there’s a change in the digestive fluid, such as low bile salts or too much cholesterol or bilirubin.
If you’ve developed symptoms caused by gallstones, you may experience intense abdominal pain (sometimes called biliary colic), especially after a fatty meal, though it may feel unrelated to digestion. Left untreated, bile duct blockages from gallstones can lead to life-threatening infections.
See your primary care physician or a gastroenterologist if you suddenly experience intense pain in the upper right side or center of your abdomen (below the breastbone), below your right shoulder blade or in your right shoulder.
Other symptoms of gallstones include:
- nausea or vomiting
- acid reflux
- abdominal bloating
- gas and burping
- sensation of fullness after meals
- abdominal pain at night
Can a blood test detect gallstones?
Certain blood tests can give your doctor information about the health and function of your gallbladder and related organs, including your liver and pancreas. But, blood tests alone are not an accurate way to diagnose the presence of gallstones.
Liver-function blood tests measure levels of serum bilirubin and liver enzymes (alkaline phosphatase, gamma-glutamyl transferase, amylase, and lipase). Abnormal levels can point to an obstruction in the common bile duct, which may be caused by gallstones. Other gastrointestinal diseases and disorders are also associated with abnormal serum and enzyme levels. Gallbladder inflammation alone does not lead to these lab abnormalities but can elevate the white blood cell count.
Do gallstones show up on a CT scan?
Yes, CT scans can show gallstones. But, this type of scan is not the most effective for detecting biliary stones and can miss them.
What’s the best test for gallstones?
A noninvasive abdominal/transabdominal ultrasound can enable your doctor to see the gallbladder and its contents via an external ultrasound device.
Which scans can find bile stones?
Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is a noninvasive MRI scan that gives your doctor images of the gallbladder, bile ducts (biliary tract) and pancreas without the injection of radioactive material.
During an endoscopic ultrasound, a physician inserts a flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end and a built-in ultrasound probe down your throat while you are under anesthesia. This allows your gastroenterologist to see your esophagus, stomach and small intestine and the surrounding structures, such as the pancreas, common bile duct and gallbladder.
Cholescintigraphy (hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid scan) is a gallbladder scan that uses an injected radioactive material to enable the doctor to see how fluid moves through your biliary tract. While it can reveal bile duct blockages, gastroenterologists generally use it to diagnose cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation) and rely on other tests to detect gallstones.
What is ERCP?
Suppose your doctor believes you have gallstones or another bile duct blockage. In that case, they may perform an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) procedure to break up or remove any bile duct stones or open the blocked or narrowed ducts. This procedure requires an endoscopy and anesthesia.
Is it time to see a gastroenterologist?
At the University of Miami Health System, our gastrointestinal (GI) specialists provide accurate diagnoses of GI conditions, including gallstones, quickly and efficiently. We offer a variety of leading-edge diagnostic services and treatments.
Contact UHealth at 305-243-2910 or request an appointment online.
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributor for UHealth’s news service. Medically reviewed by Siobhan Proksell, M.D., a gastroenterologist with the University of Miami Health System.