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How are gallstones diagnosed?

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Updated July 21, 2009

Photo by A.D.A.M. Photo by A.D.A.M.
Question: How are gallstones diagnosed?
Answer: Some people learn they have gallstones when severe pain sends them to their doctor. For others, especially those with "silent" gallstones, they learn they have gallstones when their doctor is trying to diagnose the cause of another problem.

The symptoms caused by gallstones can be similar to symptoms of a heart attack, appendicitis, peptic ulcers, IBS, hiatal hernias, pancreatitis, and hepatitis. For this reason, it is important that an accurate diagnosis is made.

Before tests are performed, a physician will do the following:

  • Patient history
    Physicians can use the patient's history of illness to help diagnose gallstones blocking the gallbladder or common bile duct.

  • Physical examination
    Physicians use the physical exam to help them diagnose various liver and gallbladder problems including gallstones.

Tests Used to Diagnose Gallstones

Ultrasound
Gallstones are usually diagnosed by ultrasound, which uses high-frequency sound waves to produce pictures of an area inside the body. When used to check for gallstones, the sound waves are directed toward the gallbladder, the liver and the bile ducts. Ultrasound waves bouncing off the surfaces of the liver and gallbladder, and off of gallstones themselves, are reflected back to the ultrasound machine, producing images that clearly show the local anatomy.

CT Scans
Sometimes CT scans are used to diagnose the cause of gallstones, especially in a patient with stomach symptoms and an unclear diagnosis.

Blood tests
Blood tests may be used to look for signs of infection or abnormal levels of bilirubin, which can happen if a bile duct is obstructed.

Sources:

"Common Gastrointestinal Problems - Gallstones." American College of Gastroenterology. 13 Jul 2009

"Gallstones."American College of Gastroenterology. 13 Jul 2009

"Gallstones." NIH Publication No. 07–2897 July 2007. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). 13 Jul 2009

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The Symptoms and Causes of Gallstones

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