Skip to main content

Issues with the gallbladder can be difficult to understand, but it’s important to know the differences so you can ensure proper diagnosis and treatment. This article will share the differences between two of those conditions, cholelithiasis and cholecystitis.

In Short: Cholelithiasis vs. Cholecystitis

Cholelithiasis involves the formation of gallstones within the gallbladder, which may or may not cause symptoms and can vary in size and number. On the other hand, cholecystitis is the inflammation of the gallbladder, often resulting from gallstones obstructing the cystic duct, leading to bile buildup and subsequent irritation.

What is Cholelithiasis? (Gallstones)

Cholelithiasis is the medical term used to describe gallstones. Gallstones are a buildup of material in the gallbladder. They typically form from biliary sludge that has built up over time. Smaller gallstones don’t always cause symptoms and can sometimes be left alone. 

However, if a gallstone is large or if it causes an obstruction, this can result in uncomfortable symptoms and require medical intervention. 

Types of Gallstones

There are two main types of gallstones. It is important to understand what type you have since the composition of the stones can impact the severity, symptoms and management of cholelithiasis. 

  • Cholesterol gallstones are the most common type of gallstone. They appear yellow in color and are formed from a buildup of cholesterol.
  • Pigment gallstones are a dark brown or black color. They form when the bile has too much bilirubin in it. Bilirubin is a substance that forms when red blood cells are broken down. It is typically excreted through the body but when you have higher than usual bilirubin levels, it may indicate an issue with your liver or gallbladder. 

What is Cholecystitis?

Cholecystitis is an inflammation of the gallbladder. This condition is often caused by the presence of gallstones blocking the flow of bile. 

Types of Cholecystitis

If you suffer from cholecystitis, it’s important to know that there are two main types::

  1. Acute cholecystitis: A sudden and severe inflammation of the gallbladder
  2. Chronic cholecystitis: A persistent, long-term condition 

What are the Risk Factors of Cholelithiasis and Cholecystitis?

Understanding the risk factors associated with cholelithiasis and cholecystitis is important for identifying whether you could be more likely to develop these gallbladder-related conditions compared to the general population.

Cholelithiasis Risk Factors

There are certain factors that make you more susceptible to having a gallstone. Due to increased cholesterol levels in bile, obesity can be a large contributor to the development of gallstones. However, rapid weight loss can also lead to the formation of gallstones. Risk factors of cholelithiasis include:

  • Being female
  • Being overweight
  • Having high cholesterol
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Being Hispanic or Native American
  • Higher levels of estrogen 

Cholecystitis Risk Factors

There are several risk factors for cholecystitis. Common ones include:

  • Being female
  • Pregnancy
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Being older than 40
  • Being Hispanic or Native American 

Causes of Cholelithiasis vs. Cholecystitis

There are numerous different causes of cholelithiasis and cholecystitis, with various factors contributing to the development of these gallbladder disorders. However, some of them are still unknown. 

Causes of Cholelithiasis

Although it isn’t entirely clear why gallstones form, doctors have some theories. Gallstone formation is often related to imbalances in the composition of the bile or dysfunction of your gallbladder. Therefore, causes of gallstones may include:

  • Too much cholesterol in the bile
  • Too much bilirubin in the bile
  • A gallbladder that doesn’t empty properly

Causes of Cholecystitis

Gallstones blocking the bile ducts are the most common cause of both acute and chronic cholecystitis. Cholecystitis can also be caused by bile duct diseases like biliary stricture, disease of the gallbladder, bile stasis, cancer and infection.

If you get a bacterial infection in your gallbladder or bile ducts, it can irritate your gallbladder tissue and cause inflammation. 

Symptoms of Cholelithiasis vs. Cholecystitis

Recognizing the distinctive symptoms associated with cholelithiasis and cholecystitis is essential for prompt diagnosis and appropriate management of these gallbladder conditions. 

While both conditions may share common symptoms such as abdominal pain, understanding the subtle differences can aid in differentiating between the two and guiding further diagnostic evaluation.

Symptoms of Cholelithiasis

Symptoms of gallstones can vary greatly in severity and depend on the size and movement of the gallstones. Biliary colic is commonly discussed surrounding the topic of gallstone symptoms. Biliary colic is a consistent ache in the upper abdomen that is usually a sign of gallstones. Other common symptoms of cholelithiasis include:

  • Abdominal pain, specifically in the right upper quadrant
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Bloating

Symptoms of Cholecystitis

There are also several symptoms associated with cholecystitis, many of which are the same:

  • Abdominal pain, specifically tenderness in the right upper quadrant
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Abdominal distension
  • Weakness and fatigue

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is always recommended to visit your doctor. 

Complications of Cholelithiasis vs. Cholecystitis

Understanding the potential complications stemming from cholelithiasis and cholecystitis is paramount in assessing the severity and long-term implications of these gallbladder-related conditions.

Both conditions can lead to a range of complications that vary in severity, from mild discomfort to life-threatening situations, necessitating prompt medical attention and management.

Cholelithiasis Complications

Gallstones aren’t always an issue. However, in some circumstances, they can worsen and lead to complications such as:

  • Inflammation of the gallbladder or cholecystitis
  • Choledocholithiasis or gallstones in the common bile duct
  • Pancreatitis
  • Gallbladder cancer

Cholecystitis Complications

Complications arising from cholecystitis can have a serious impact on overall health so it is important to manage your condition properly and seek medical support from a skilled provider. Potential complications of cholecystitis include:

  • Gallbladder perforation
  • Liver injury
  • Pancreatitis
  • Peritonitis leading to an abscess or infection spreading to the bloodstream (sepsis) 

How to Diagnose Cholelithiasis vs. Cholecystitis

Accurate diagnosis of these conditions is crucial for initiating appropriate treatment and preventing potential complications.

Diagnostic methods for these gallbladder conditions encompass a variety of imaging techniques and laboratory tests tailored to identify gallstones and assess gallbladder inflammation.

Cholelithiasis Diagnostic Procedures

Accurate diagnosis is essential to ensure proper treatment and planning. Your doctor may recommend any of these different tests to diagnose cholelithiasis. Some common tests include:

  • Blood tests
  • Liver function tests
  • CT scan
  • Ultrasound 

Cholecystitis Diagnostic Procedures

When diagnosing cholecystitis, your provider will want to rule out similar conditions such as peptic ulcers and other GI issues. For this reason, they will order a variety of diagnostic tests to ensure an accurate diagnosis. Common diagnostic procedures used for cholecystitis include:

  • Blood tests to look for inflammation markers 
  • Ultrasonography
  • CT scans 

Murphy’s sign is a clinical indicator of cholecystitis that your provider may use. This involves having the patient take a deep breath and hold it while they feel your right subcostal area. If this causes pain to the patient, it is a likely indicator of cholecystitis. 

Treatments for Cholelithiasis vs. Cholecystitis

The treatment approaches for cholelithiasis and cholecystitis differ based on the severity of symptoms, the presence of complications, and individual patient factors. While some cases may require conservative management, others may necessitate surgical intervention to alleviate symptoms and prevent recurrence.

Cholelithiasis Treatment Options

Treatment approaches for gallstones will vary significantly from person to person. If a gallstone is small and asymptomatic, it may never cause an issue but if it causes a blockage in your biliary tract you may need surgery. Even if you have a gallstone that naturally becomes dislodged and clears on its own, there is a good chance that it may become blocked again. 

Cholecystitis Treatment Options

Cholecystitis will typically require medical treatment. Common treatment approaches used for cholecystitis include:

Final Thoughts

Cholecystitis and cholelithiasis have similar symptoms and diagnostic tests but ultimately, they are different conditions with different treatment options. Gallbladder health is essential in feeling your best and maintaining a high-quality life. It is important to trust skilled providers like those at UCF Health for your medical care and gallbladder disease management.