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Silent gallstones: a therapeutic dilemma.

Asymptomatic gall stones are defined as stones that have not caused biliary colic or other biliary symptoms. Nearly two-third of patients with gall stones are asymptomatic. Studies of the natural history of asymptomatic gall stones suggest that the cumulative probability of developing biliary colic after 10 years ranges from 15% to 25%. The incidence of other complications is much less. The operative mortality of elective cholecystectomy is <0.5% but increased mortality is seen in elderly persons (>60 year of age), particularly in those with complications such as acute cholecystitis. Most decision analysis studies do not favour prophylactic cholecystectomy for asymptomatic cholelithiasis. Nonetheless, many studies have listed certain criteria for carrying out elective cholecystectomy in asymptomatic patients. The authors, from their own experience and after reviewing the literature, propose the following criteria for cholecystectomy: life expectancy >20 years, calculi >3 cm in diameter, particularly in individuals in geographical regions with a high prevalence of gall bladder cancer or calculi <3 mm, chronically obliterated cystic duct, non-functioning gallbladder and calcified (porcelain) gallbladder. The widespread use of diagnostic abdominal ultrasonography has led to the increasing detection of clinically unsuspected gall stones. This, in turn, has given rise to a great deal of controversy regarding the optimal management of asymptomatic or 'silent' gall stones. While cholecystectomy is the undisputed gold standard treatment for symptomatic gall stones, the natural history of silent gall stones is not known well enough to recommend a definitive therapeutic strategy for such patients. The treatment options for asymptomatic or silent gall stones range from no treatment to selective cholecystectomy in at-risk group to elective cholecystectomy in all patients. There are a large number of proponents for each of these options so that each merits careful consideration. In this article, the authors examine the evidence for and against treating silent gall stones with the aim of providing more specific guidelines for the management of patients found to have asymptomatic gall stones.

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