The gallbladder acts as a reservoir for bile, which is produced by the liver and helps to digest dietary fat. In about 10% of the population, the gallbladder contains stones made of cholesterol or other substances. Women are more susceptible to gallstones than men, and gallstones most commonly occur when people are in their 40s and 50s. In addition, being overweight or having lost weight rapidly predisposes one to gallstones.
In the majority of cases, gallstones do not cause problems and may be left alone, but in a significant proportion of people with gallstones (as many as 35%) they may cause transient or ongoing blockages of the ducts of the gallbladder or bile system. This can cause abdominal pain, jaundice (an abnormal yellowing of the urine, eyes, and/or skin), inflammation of the pancreas, or infection of the gallbladder or biliary system. Gallstones may also cause subtler symptoms, such as a sensation of indigestion, bloating, or nausea, especially after eating fatty foods. Pain, when it occurs, is most frequently in the upper abdomen, especially in the right upper part of the abdomen and often radiating toward the back.
Once gallstones begin to cause symptoms, most people benefit from having their gallbladders removed, and in the large majority of cases (well over 95% of the time) this can be done using minimally invasive surgical techniques (laparoscopy), with four small abdominal incisions, none larger than an inch. Removal of the gallbladder may be done as an outpatient procedure, or it may require a short stay in the hospital, generally not more than one night. Patients who have had gallbladder surgery can generally return to most normal activities after about two weeks, and frequently sooner.