Gallstones Diagnosis

How are gallstones diagnosed?
Dr. Jones will usually order an ultrasound exam to diagnose gallstones. Other imaging tests may also be used.

  • Ultrasound exams use a device called a transducer that bounces safe, painless sound waves off organs to create an image of their structure.  If gallstones are present, they will be visible in the image. Ultrasound is the most accurate method to detect gallstones.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scans are x-rays that produce pictures of the body. A CT scan may include the injection of a special dye, called contrast medium. CT scans use a combination of x-rays and computer technology to create three-dimensional images. CT scans require the person to lie on a table that slides into a tunnel-shaped device where the x-rays are taken. CT scans can show gallstones or complications, such as infection and blockage of the gallbladder or bile ducts.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines use radio waves and magnets to produce detailed pictures of the body’s internal organs and soft tissues without using x-rays. An MRI may include the injection of contrast medium. With most MRI machines, the person lies on a table that slides into a tunnel-shaped device that may be open ended or closed at one end; some newer machines allow the person to lie in a more open space. MRIs can show gallstones in the ducts of the biliary system.
  • Cholescintigraphy—also called a hydroxyl iminodiacetic acid scan, HIDA scan, or hepatobiliary scan—uses a radioactive material to produce pictures of the biliary system. In cholescintigraphy, the patient lies on an exam table and Dr. Jones injects a small amount of radioactive material into a vein in the person’s arm. Dr. Jones may also inject a substance that causes the gallbladder to contract. A special camera takes pictures of the radioactive material as it moves through the biliary system. Cholescintigraphy is used to diagnose abnormal contractions of the gallbladder or obstruction of the bile ducts.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) uses an x-ray to look into the bile and pancreatic ducts. After lightly sedating the person, Dr. Jones inserts an endoscope—a small, flexible tube with a light and a camera on the end—through the mouth into the duodenum and bile ducts. The endoscope is connected to a computer and video monitor. Contrast medium is injected through the tube into the bile ducts, which makes the ducts show up on the monitor. ERCP helps Dr. Jones locate the affected bile duct and the gallstone. The stone is captured in a tiny basket attached to the endoscope and removed. This test is more invasive than other tests and is used selectively.

Dr. Jones also use blood tests to look for signs of infection or inflammation of the bile ducts, gallbladder, pancreas, or liver. A blood test involves drawing blood sending the sample to a lab for analysis.

Gallstone symptoms may be similar to those of other conditions, such as appendicitis, ulcers, pancreatitis, and gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Sometimes, silent gallstones are found when a person does not have any symptoms. For example, a health care provider may notice gallstones when performing ultrasound for a different reason.