The most certain symptomatic manifestation of gallstones is episodic upper abdominal pain. Characteristically, this pain is severe and located in the epigastrium and/or the right upper quadrant. The onset is relatively abrupt and often awakens the patient from sleep. The pain is steady in intensity, may radiate to the upper back, be associated with nausea and lasts for hours to up to a day. Dyspeptic symptoms of indigestion, belching, bloating, abdominal discomfort, heartburn and specific food intolerance are common in persons with gallstones, but are probably unrelated to the stones themselves and frequently persist after surgery. Many, if not most, persons with gallstones have no history of pain attacks. Persons discovered to have gallstones in the absence of typical symptoms appear to have an annual incidence of biliary pain of 2-5 % during the initial years of follow-up, with perhaps a declining rate thereafter. Gallstone-related complications occur at a rate of less than 1% annually. Those whose stones are symptomatic at discovery have a more severe course, with approximately 6-10% suffering recurrent symptoms each year and 2% biliary complications. The far higher rates of symptom development reported in a few studies raise the possibility that these incidence estimates may be too low. The best predictors of future biliary pain are a history of pain at the time of diagnosis, female gender and possibly obesity. The risk of acute cholecystitis appears to be greater in those with large solitary stones, that of biliary pancreatitis in those with multiple small stones, and that of gallbladder cancer in those with large stones of any number. Drugs that inhibit the synthesis of prostaglandins may now be the treatment of choice in patients with gallstones who are suffering acute pain attacks. Persistent dyspeptic symptoms occur frequently following cholecystectomy. A prolonged history of such symptoms prior to surgery and evidence of significant psychological distress appear to be the best predictors of unsatisfactory outcome.
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