- The presence of cholesterol, pigment, or mixed stones (calculi) within the gallbladder
- Synonym(s): gallstones
Uncommon in children aged <10 years. Most gallstones in children are pigment stones associated with blood dyscrasias.
Increases with age ~1–3% per year; peaks at 7th decade of life; 2% of the U.S. population develops gallstones annually.
- 8–10% of the U.S. population with gallstones; 20% >65 years of age
- Female > male (2 to 3:1)
Etiology and Pathophysiology
- Gallstone formation is a complex process mediated by genetic, metabolic, immune, and environmental factors. Gallbladder sludge (a mixture of cholesterol crystals, calcium bilirubinate granules, and mucin gel matrix) serves as the nidus for gallstone formation. Bile supersaturated with cholesterol (cholesterol stones) precipitates as microcrystals that aggregate and expand. Stone formation is enhanced by biliary stasis or impaired gallbladder motility.
- Decrease in bile phospholipid (lecithin) or decreased bile salt secretion
- Excess unconjugated bilirubin in patients with hemolytic diseases; passage of excess bile salt into the colon with subsequent absorption of excess unconjugated bilirubin in patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or after distal ileal resection (black or pigment stones)
- Hydrolysis of conjugated bilirubin or phospholipid by bacteria in patients with biliary tract infection or stricture (brown stones or primary bile duct stones; rare in the Western world and common in Asia)
- Age peaks in patients 60 to 80 years of age; female gender, pregnancy, multiparity, obesity, and metabolic syndrome
- Caucasian, Hispanic, or Native American descent
- High-fat diet rich in cholesterol
- Cholestasis or impaired gallbladder motility in association with prolonged fasting, long-term total parenteral nutrition (TPN), following vagotomy, long-term somatostatin therapy, and rapid weight loss
- Hereditary (p.D19H variant for the hepatic canalicular cholesterol transporter ABCG5/ABG8); short gut syndrome, terminal ileal resection, IBD; hemolytic disorders (hereditary spherocytosis, sickle cell anemia, etc.), cirrhosis (black/pigment stones)
- Medications (birth control pills, estrogen at high doses, long-term corticosteroids)
- Viral hepatitis, biliary tract infection, and stricture (promotes intraductal formation of pigment stones)
- Regular exercise and dietary modification may reduce the incidence of gallstone formation.
- Lipid-lowering drugs (statins) may prevent cholesterol stone formation by reducing bile cholesterol saturation.
- Ursodiol (Actigall) taken during rapid weight loss helps prevent gallstone formation.
Commonly Associated Conditions
90% of people with gallbladder carcinoma have gallstones and chronic cholecystitis.
- Most patients are asymptomatic (80%): 2% become symptomatic each year. Over their lifetime, <50% of patients with gallstones develop symptoms.
- Episodic right upper quadrant or epigastric pain lasting >15 minutes and sometimes radiating to the back (biliary colic—due to transient cystic duct obstruction); pain is usually postprandial, particularly following a fatty meal but sometimes awakens patients from sleep; most patients develop recurrent symptoms after a first episode of biliary colic.
- Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, indigestion or bloating sensation, and fatty food intolerance.
- Gallstone-related complications (such as gallstone pancreatitis [GP]) may be the first manifestation of gallstone disease.
- Physical exam is usually normal in patients with cholelithiasis in the absence of an acute attack.
- Epigastric and/or right upper quadrant tenderness (Murphy sign) is a traditional physical finding associated with acute cholecystitis. Murphy sign has limited sensitivity and specificity.
- Charcot triad: fever, jaundice, right upper quadrant pain historically associated with cholangitis
- Reynolds pentad: fever, jaundice, right upper quadrant pain, hemodynamic instability, mental status changes; also classically associated with ascending cholangitis
- Flank and periumbilical ecchymoses (Cullen sign and Grey Turner sign) in patients with acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis
- Courvoisier sign: palpable mass in the right upper quadrant in patient with obstructive jaundice most commonly due to malignant tumors within the biliary tree or pancreas
- Peptic ulcer diseases and gastritis; hepatitis
- Pancreatitis; cholangitis; gallbladder cancer; gallbladder polyps
- Acalculous cholecystitis; biliary dyskinesia; choledocholithiasis
Diagnostic Tests & Interpretation
Ultrasound (US) is the preferred diagnostic modality for cholelithiasis (high sensitivity and specificity).
Initial Tests (lab, imaging)
- Leukocytosis and elevated C-reactive protein level are common in acute calculus cholecystitis.
- US is the preferred imaging modality. US detects gallstones in 97–98% of patients.
- Thickening of the gallbladder wall (≥5 mm), pericholecystic fluid, and direct tenderness when the probe is pushed against the gallbladder (sonographic Murphy sign) are associated with acute cholecystitis.
- CT scan has no advantage over US except for detecting distal common bile duct (CBD) stones.
- MR cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is reserved for cases of suspected CBD stones. However, MRCP has no therapeutic value, and preoperative MRCP is not more cost-effective than initial cholecystectomy with cholangiography in the diagnosis of patients with suspected CBD stones and patients with mild to moderate GP.
- Endoscopic US is as sensitive as endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) for detection of CBD stones in patients with GP.
- Hepatobiliary iminodiacetic acid (HIDA) scan is useful in diagnosing acute cholecystitis secondary to cystic duct obstruction. It is also useful in differentiating acalculous cholecystitis from other causes of abdominal pain. False-positive tests can result from a fasting state, insufficient resistance of the sphincter of Oddi, and gallbladder agenesis.
- Cholecystokinin (CCK)-HIDA is specifically used to diagnose gallbladder dysmotility (biliary dyskinesia).
- 10–30% of gallstones are radiopaque calcium or pigment-containing gallstones (visible on plain x-ray). A “porcelain gallbladder” is a calcified gallbladder (also visible by x-ray) associated with chronic cholecystitis and gallbladder cancer.
Pure cholesterol stones are white or slightly yellow. Pigment stones may be black or brown. Black stones contain polymerized calcium bilirubinate, most often secondary to cirrhosis or hemolysis; these almost always form within the gallbladder. Brown stones are associated with biliary tract infection, caused by bile stasis, and as such primarily form in the bile ducts.
- Treat symptomatic cholelithiasis.
- Conservative therapy is preferred during pregnancy; surgery in the 2nd trimester if necessary
- Prophylactic cholecystectomy for patients with calcified (porcelain) gallbladder (risk for gallbladder cancer), patients with large stones (≥3 cm), patients with sickle cell disease, children with gallstones, patients planning an organ transplant, and patients with recurrent pancreatitis due to microlithiasis
- In morbidly obese patients, cholecystectomy may be performed in combination with bariatric procedures to reduce subsequent stone-related comorbidities.
- Consider prophylactic cholecystectomy for gallstones discovered incidentally during open abdominal surgery.
Gallstones are more common in the elderly. Age alone should not alter the therapeutic plan.
- Analgesics for pain relief
- NSAIDs are the first-choice treatment for pain control which is equivalent to opioid therapy.
- Opioids are an option for patients who cannot tolerate or fail to respond to NSAIDs.
- Antibiotics for patients with acute cholecystitis
- Prophylactic antibiotics in low-risk patients do not prevent infections during laparoscopic cholecystectomy (LC).
Issues For Referral
Patients with retained or recurrent bile duct stones following cholecystectomy should be referred for ERCP.
- Surgery should be considered for patients who have symptomatic cholelithiasis or gallstone-related complications (e.g., cholecystitis) or in asymptomatic patients with immune suppression, calcified gallbladder, giant gallstones (≥3 cm), or family history of gallbladder cancer.
- Open and LC have similar mortality and complication rates. LC is the current gold standard.
- In well-selected patients, robotic cholecystectomy (RC) is an alternative to LC. RC is associated with higher cost and has not been shown to be superior to LC in terms of pain and risk of complication.
- Conversion to open procedure is based on clinical judgment.
- In 10–15% of patients with symptomatic cholelithiasis, CBD stones are detected by intraoperative cholangiogram (IOC). CBD stone(s) can be removed by laparoscopic CBD exploration or postoperative ERCP.
- IOC helps delineate bile duct anatomy when dissection is difficult. Routine use of IOC is controversial and may be associated with decreased incidence and severity of bile duct injury.
- Early LC (<24 hours after diagnosis of biliary colic) decreases hospital stay and operating time. For patients with acute cholecystitis, early LC (<7 days of clinical presentation) is safe and may shorten the total hospital stay versus delayed LC (>6 weeks after index admission with acute cholecystitis) (1)[A].
- Percutaneous cholecystostomy (PC) is used for high-risk patients with cholecystitis or gallbladder empyema. Interval cholecystectomy is recommended.
- Symptomatic patients who are not candidates for surgery or those who have small gallstones (5 mm or smaller) in a functioning gallbladder with a patent cystic duct are candidates for oral dissolution therapy (ursodiol [Actigall]). The recurrence rate is >50% once medication is discontinued.
- Cystic duct stenting via ERCP is a viable option for managing severe acute cholecystitis, gallbladder hydrops, or empyema in patients unfit for surgery. It can be used as a bridge to LC.
- Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy is a noninvasive therapeutic alternative for symptomatic patients who are not candidates for surgery. It helps break down large bile duct stones before ERCP. Complications include biliary pancreatitis, hepatic hematoma, incomplete ductal stone clearance, and recurrence.
Admission, Inpatient, and Nursing Considerations
For patients with symptomatic cholelithiasis, LC is typically an outpatient procedure. For patients with complications (i.e., cholecystitis, cholangitis, pancreatitis), inpatient care is necessary; acute phase: NPO, IV fluids, and antibiotics; adequate pain control with narcotics and/or NSAIDs
- Follow for signs of symptomatic cholelithiasis.
- Follow patients on oral dissolution agents with serial liver enzymes, serum cholesterol, and imaging.
A low-fat diet may help.
- Change in lifestyle (e.g., regular exercise) and dietary modification (low-fat diet and reduction of total caloric intake) may reduce gallstone-related hospitalizations.
- Patients with asymptomatic gallstones should be educated about the typical symptoms of biliary colic and gallstone-related complications.
- <50% of patients with gallstones become symptomatic.
- Cholecystectomy-related mortality is <0.5% in elective cases and 3–5% in emergency cases; morbidity is <10% in elective cases and 30–40% in emergency cases. ~10–15% of patients have associated choledocholithiasis. After cholecystectomy, stones may recur within the biliary tree in patients with associated risk factors.
- Acute cholecystitis (90–95% secondary to gallstones)
- Gallbladder cancer; Mirizzi syndrome (extrinsic bile duct obstruction caused by gallstones lodged in gallbladder or cystic duct)
- K80.00 Calculus of gallbladder w acute cholecyst w/o obstruction
- K80.01 Calculus of gallbladder w acute cholecystitis w obstruction
- K80.18 Calculus of gallbladder w oth cholecystitis w/o obstruction
- K80.19 Calculus of gallbladder w oth cholecystitis with obstruction
- K80.20 Calculus of gallbladder w/o cholecystitis w/o obstruction
- K80.21 Calculus of gallbladder w/o cholecystitis with obstruction
- 235919008 gallbladder calculus (disorder)
- 25924004 Calculus of gallbladder with cholecystitis (disorder)
- 266474003 calculus in biliary tract (disorder)
- 29484002 Cholelithiasis AND cholecystitis without obstruction
- 50450007 Cholelithiasis AND cholecystitis with obstruction
- 59771005 Calculus of gallbladder with acute cholecystitis (disorder)
- 699050007 Calculus of gallbladder with acute and chronic cholecystitis (disorder)
- 77528005 cholelithiasis with obstruction (disorder)
- Most gallstones are asymptomatic.
- Transabdominal US is the imaging modality of choice for cholelithiasis (sensitivity, 97%; specificity, 95%).
- LC is the preferred surgical procedure for symptomatic cholelithiasis and gallstone-related complications.
- Acute acalculous cholecystitis is associated with bile stasis and gallbladder ischemia.
- Prophylactic cholecystectomy is not routinely indicated in patients with asymptomatic gallstones.
Hongyi Cui, MD, PhD
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