Obstructive jaundice can occur if a gallstone remains stuck in the bile duct and prevents the normal flow of bile into the intestine. Obstructive jaundice is painful and causes the skin to turn a yellow/olive-green color. The stools will become pale in color because the pigments usually supplied from the bile are absent. Itching is another symptom of a blocked bile duct. Gallstones may also cause acute pancreatitis, a condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed, causing pain. It is probably caused by the passage of small stones into the pancreatic duct, located close to the gall bladder.

What tests confirm the presence of gallstones?
Occasionally, gallstones can be seen on an x-ray but usually an ultrasound scan is used to diagnose the cause of biliary colic. 

How are gallstones treated?
Gallstones are only treated if they are causing problems. Most people will have no symptoms and for these people treatment is not advised or necessary. Medication to dissolve cholesterol gallstones is available, but this is ineffective against gallstones containing bile pigment or calcium. The medication consists of bile acids in the form of ursodiol (Actigall). These preparations act slowly and may have to be taken for years. Therefore, this type of treatment is used mostly when surgery is inadvisable.

For pain caused by biliary colic or an obstruction of the bile duct by a stone, antispasmodics such as hyoscyamine (Cystospaz) may be given. Injectable painkillers may be given for acute episodes of severe pain. For those people who are suffering pain, jaundice or other symptoms, removal of the gallstones and sometimes the gallbladder itself may be advised.

Further information
National Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK): http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/gallstones/index.aspx

Last Reviewed: May 2013