Gallstones

What are gallstones?

The gallbladder is the place where bile (a liquid made of cholesterol, bile pigments, bile salts, and water) is stored between meals. When your child eats, bile is discharged from the gallbladder into the intestines to help with food digestion. Sometimes, parts of the bile harden and form crystals. When a crystal grows larger, it becomes a gallstone. Gallstones can block bile from discharging into the intestine.

The cause of gallstones in children isn't known, but they seem to happen more frequently in some children who:

  • Are born prematurely with a low birth weight
  • Have experienced spinal injury
  • Have a history of abdominal surgery
  • Have cystic fibrosis
  • Have hemolytic anemia
  • Have sickle-cell anemia
  • Have an impaired immune system
  • Have used intravenous nutrition
  • Have a family history of gallstones

What are the symptoms?

Children with gallstones often experience pain in the right upper or upper middle part of the abdomen. The pain may be more noticeable after meals, especially if the child has eaten fatty or greasy foods. The child also may experience nausea and vomiting. A yellow tint (jaundice) may be noticeable in your child's skin.

How are gallstones treated?

In most cases where children develop gallstones, the gallbladder must be removed. This operation is called a cholecystectomy. This is because gallstones often redevelop in the gallbladder if it is not removed. In many cases, gallbladder removal can be performed laparoscopically (which uses smaller incisions, thus allowing your child to recover more quickly and comfortably). Without the gallbladder, the liver will discharge bile directly into the intestine.

In some cases, after the gallbladder has been removed, gallstones redevelop in the bile duct. If this occurs, an endoscopy may be performed. During an endoscopy, the gallstone is removed through a flexible tube passed through the mouth, stomach, and intestine, and then into the bile duct.

About surgery for gallstones at Children's

Surgery for gallstones is commonly performed at Children's and typically is performed by pediatric general surgeons. Surgery teams at Children's provide next-generation care to neonatal infants, newborns, children, and adolescents from throughout the Upper Midwest and consistently perform some of the most cutting-edge surgical procedures available, including newborn surgery, laparoscopic and other minimally invasive surgeries, and robotic surgery, when appropriate. Surgery for gallstones is performed at Children's - Minneapolis, Children's - St. Paul, and Children's West (Minnetonka).

Contact us

If you are a family member looking for a Children's specialist in general surgery or gastrointestinal surgery, please visit Find a Doctor.

If you are a health professional looking for a consultation or referral information, please call Children's Physician Access at 1-866-755-2121 (toll-free).