Gallstone complications can occur if your gallstones move into the bile ducts, get stuck, and block the passage of the bile for a prolonged period. Bile duct blockages, if not treated, can be fatal.

Gallstones are quite common in people over the age of 40 years and those with certain risk factors. However, in most people, the gallstones do not produce any symptoms and therefore stay unnoticed. They are best left alone.

Treatment is resorted to if there are presenting symptoms. This is because complications occur only in cases where there are symptoms, which are not treated. Each year about 1 out of 100 people who have gallbladder symptoms develop complications.

Possible complications of gallstones include inflammation of the gallbladder, bile duct, or pancreas. Large gallstones may increase the risk of cancer of the gallbladder and bile duct.


Inflammation of the gallbladder is called acute cholecystitis. It can be caused by a gallstone that gets lodged in the neck of the gallbladder or the cystic duct causing inflammation of the gallbladder. this happens if a gallstone prevents bile from draining properly.

Symptoms include severe pain in the upper abdomen, high fever, nausea, and vomiting. A large meal with fatty foods can trigger these symptoms.

Cholecystitis can be acute or chronic. It can clear up on its own and can recur.

Cholangitis – Infection of the bile ducts

Gallstones can get lodged and block the ducts through which bile flows from your gallbladder (cystic duct) or liver (hepatic duct) to your small intestine. This can cause severe abdominal pain, jaundice, and infection in the duct that has been blocked.

Blockage of the cystic duct causes pressure to build up within the gallbladder, which can result in symptoms of gallstones setting in, such as biliary colic.

Blockage of the common bile duct can cause biliary colic accompanied by the presence of jaundice, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), or cholangitis (inflammation of the duct).

Acute pancreatitis

A gallstone lodged in the common bile duct can block the duct opening that is common for the gallbladder and pancreas. The pancreatic juices help in digestion and flow through the pancreatic duct, which originates from the pancreas and connects to the common bile duct just before it enters the duodenum.

The digestive juices produced in the pancreas cannot drain into the duodenum and accumulate and cause infection. Pancreatitis is potentially life-threatening if left untreated. Symptoms include can cause severe, constant abdominal pain and usually the patient requires hospitalization.

Gallbladder cancer and bile duct cancer

Though gallbladder cancer is very rare, the risk of this cancer is increased in people with untreated and large gallstones.

Most people who have suffered from cancer of the gallbladder have shown a history of gallstones. However, as mentioned above, being rare, the majority of gallstone patients do not develop gallbladder cancer. About 5 out of 1,000 people with gallstones get gallbladder cancer.

Symptoms of gallbladder cancer can include:

  • abdominal pain
  • a high temperature
  • jaundice
  • lump in the abdomen
  • loss of appetite
  • unexplained loss of weight

Gallstone ileus

Gallstone ileus is a rare complication of untreated gallstones in which the small bowel gets obstructed by a gallstone impacted inside the lumen of the small intestine.

This complication occurs when the gallstone is large, more than 2.5 cms in diameter. This happens due to the formation of a fistula by gradual erosion through the gallbladder fundus.

The gallstone stone can travel from the gallbladder into the bowel through the fistula and become lodged almost anywhere along the small intestine.

Symptoms of gallstone ileus include:

  • abdominal pain
  • abdominal swelling
  • constipation

Gallstone complications in pregnancy

Besides the above complications, pregnancy can produce more complications.

Gallstone disease in pregnancy, when symptomatic, can increase the risk of mortality in both the mother and the fetus. It can further cause complications such as spontaneous abortion, abnormalities in the fetus, preterm labor, preterm birth, and even death.

Side effects after gallbladder surgery

After surgery to remove your gallbladder, you may experience certain side effects related to digestion.

  • Difficulty in digesting fatty foods
  • Diarrhea and flatulence
  • Constipation
  • Intestinal injury due to surgery
  • Jaundice
  • Fever