Cholelithiasis and cholecystitis

J Long Term Eff Med Implants. 2005;15(3):329-38. doi: 10.1615/jlongtermeffmedimplants.v15.i3.90.


Gallstone disease remains one of the most common medical problems leading to surgical intervention. Every year, approximately 500,000 cholecystectomies are performed in the US. Cholelithiasis affects approximately 10% of the adult population in the United States. It has been well demonstrated that the presence of gallstones increases with age. An estimated 20% of adults over 40 years of age and 30% of those over age 70 have biliary calculi. During the reproductive years, the female-to-male ratio is about 4:1, with the sex discrepancy narrowing in the older population to near equality. The risk factors predisposing to gallstone formation include obesity, diabetes mellitus, estrogen and pregnancy, hemolytic diseases, and cirrhosis. A study of the natural history of cholelithiasis demonstrates that approximately 35% of patients initially diagnosed with having, but not treated for, gallstones later developed complications or recurrent symptoms leading to cholecystectomy. During the last two decades, the general principles of gallstone management have not notably changed. However, methods of treatment have been dramatically altered. Today, laparoscopic cholecystectomy, laparoscopic common bile duct exploration, and endoscopic retrograde management of common bile duct (CBD) stones play important roles in the treatment of gallstones. These technological advances in the management of biliary tract disease are not infrequently accomplished by a multidisciplinary team of physicians, including surgeons trained in laparoscopic techniques, interventional gastroenterologists, and interventional radiologists. With the evolution of laparoscopic cholecystectomy, there has been a global reeducation and retraining program of surgeons. However, the treatment of choice for gallstones remains cholecystectomy. In recognition of the revolutionary advances in the treatment of cholelithiasis, it is the purpose of this collective review to describe recent information on the following topics: types of gallstones, asymptomatic gallstones, symptomatic gallstones, chronic cholecystitis, acute cholecystitis, and other complications of gallstones. Gross and compositional analysis of gallstones allows them to be classified as cholesterol, mixed, and pigment gallstones. When asymptomatic gallstones are detected during the evaluation of a patient, a prophylactic cholecystectomy is normally not indicated because of several factors. Only about 30% of patients with asymptomatic cholelithiasis will warrant surgery during their lifetime, suggesting that cholelithiasis can be a relatively benign condition in some people. However, there are certain factors that predict a more serious course in patients with asymptomatic gallstones and warrant a prophylactic cholecystectomy when they are present. These factors include patients with large (>2.5 cm) gallstones, patients with congenital hemolytic anemia or nonfunctioning gallbladders, or during bariatric surgery or colectomy. Epigastric and right upper quadrant pain occurring 30-60 minutes after meals is frequently associated with gallstone disease. The diagnosis of chronic cholecystitis is made by the presence of biliary colic with evidence of gallstones on an imaging study. Ultrasonography is the diagnostic test of choice, being 90-95% sensitive. The surgical literature suggests that 3-10% of patients undergoing cholecystectomy will have CBD stones. Intraoperative laparoscopic ultrasonography has recently replaced cholangiography as the method of choice for detecting CBD stones. Ultrasonography and radionuclide cholescintigraphy (HIDA scan) are useful in establishing a diagnosis of acute cholecystitis. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy should also be used in the treatment of acute cholecystitis. Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is more likely to be successful when performed within 3 days of the onset of symptoms. It is important to remember that gallstones can lead to a variety of other complications including choledocholithiasis, gallstone ileus, and acute gallstone pancreatitis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anemia, Hemolytic / epidemiology
  • Cholecystectomy, Laparoscopic
  • Cholecystitis / epidemiology*
  • Cholelithiasis / classification
  • Cholelithiasis / epidemiology*
  • Cholelithiasis / surgery
  • Chronic Disease
  • Diabetes Mellitus / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Gallstones / epidemiology
  • Gallstones / surgery
  • Humans
  • Liver Cirrhosis / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / epidemiology
  • Risk Factors