Digestive and Gastrointestinal Conditions


What Are Gallstones?

Gallstones are small, stone-like objects that form when the liquid in the gallbladder hardens. This liquid is called bile. It helps the body digest fats.

The liver makes bile, and the gallbladder stores it until the body needs it. Then the gallbladder contracts and squeezes bile out into the intestines. A series of tubes connects the liver, gallbladder and intestines. The tubes leaving the liver are called the hepatic ducts. The tube leaving the gallbladder is called the cystic duct. They combine to form the common bile duct, which goes to the intestines.

Bile contains water and several solids: cholesterol, fats, salts and proteins. It also contains bilirubin, a yellowish pigment. Usually gallstones are made mostly of cholesterol. Some are made of bilirubin.

If gallstones get lodged in a duct, they can block the flow of bile. This can cause the duct or the gallbladder to swell. Ongoing blockage can damage the liver, the gallbladder or the pancreas. Blockage can lead to infection, too. Organ damage and infection can be serious problems.

Gallstones in Children

Gallstones are not as common in children as they are in adults. But some children do get gallstones. Most often, there is no specific underlying cause for gallstones in children. But some factors can put kids at increased risk for gallstones:

Gallstones at Seattle Children's

We have treated many children with gallstones at Seattle Children's. In fact, we have one of the largest reports in the medical literature on the treatment of this disease in children.

Our surgeons have extensive experience in performing the most common operation to remove the gallbladder, called laparoscopic cholecystectomy (pronounced koh-leh-sist-EKT-uh-mee). We also have extensive experience in dealing with the possible complications of gallstone disease, such as problems with the liver or pancreas.

When you come to Seattle Children's, you have a team of people to care for your child before, during and after surgery. Along with your child's surgeon, you are connected with nurses, dietitians, child life specialists and others. We work together to meet all of your child's health needs and help your family through this experience.

Since 1907, Seattle Children's has been treating children only. Our team members are trained in their fields and also in meeting the unique needs of children. For example, the doctors who give your child anesthesia are board certified in pediatric anesthesiology. This means they have extra years of training in how to take care of kids. Our child life specialists know how to help children understand their illnesses and treatments in ways that make sense for their age. Our expertise in pediatrics truly makes a difference for our patients and families.