Gallstone Risks, Symptoms, and Treatment

Gallstone Risks, Symptoms, and Treatment

Do you have severe abdominal pain? You could have gallstones.

Tucked beneath your liver, the gallbladder is a seemingly inconsequential organ that stores bile from your liver. When this bile passes to your small intestine, it helps digest fatty foods. However, when gallstones occur, the pain can be debilitating.

What are Gallstones?

Gallstones are hardened deposits of digestive fluid that occur in the gallbladder or the bile duct. The size of these deposits can range from as small as a single grain of rice to as large as a golf ball. Some patients only experience one, while others may have several. 

Symptoms of Gallstones

Many gallstones cause no symptoms whatsoever. However, those that block the bile duct can lead to a number of painful and bothersome symptoms associated with the resulting inflammation, a condition also known as cholecystitis. These symptoms include:

  • Pain and tenderness located in the upper right abdomen (Pain may also be felt in the upper right back and shoulder.)
  • Discomfort or pain after eating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fever

Risk Factors for Developing Gallstones

Some patients are more likely to develop gallstones than others based on the presence of certain risk factors. These include:

  • Family history of gallstones
  • Being overweight
  • Eating a diet that is high in fat or cholesterol or low in fiber
  • Experiencing rapid weight loss
  • Being pregnant
  • Being over 60 years old
  • Being female
  • Being of Mexican or Native American descent

How are gallstones treated?

At Triborough GI an  X-ray, CT scan or ultrasound will confirm whether you have gallstones. If you don’t have any symptoms, most likely you’ll simply live with them, until you do. 

After treating your gallstones, changing to a vegetarian diet or one that includes preventative factors, like polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, fiber and caffeine is suggested.

The rapid shift from the gallbladder being very active and frequently digesting fats to not being used at all can aggravate your condition and produce more gallstones. Crash-diet plans that cause a rapid loss of a great deal of weight can also produce or aggravate gallstones. If you’re considering weight management surgery, talk to your surgeon about the potential for gallstones.

If your doctor decides to remove your gallbladder, a cholecystectomy might be suggested. For this procedure, a surgical incision is made, and then the gallbladder is removed by laparoscopic surgery. Most patients experience a quick recovery with little pain and discomfort.

Not all gallstones need to be surgically removed, sometimes a physician will find gallstones, when doing a procedure for kidney stones, for example. If they aren’t causing you symptoms, the gallbladder may not need to be removed. But if you have persistent pain, surgery is the best option. Patients who are immunosuppressed are also advised to get surgery, as gallstones can lead to a potentially fatal infection.

How common are gallstones?

Gallstones are common in developed countries, affecting about 10% of adults and 20% of those over the age of 65. Only 20% of people diagnosed with gallstones will need treatment.

What is the main cause of gallstones?

As much as 75% of the gallstones healthcare providers discover are made up of excess cholesterol. So, we could say that having excess cholesterol in your blood is the leading cause of gallstones. You might have extra cholesterol for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common reasons include metabolic disorders, such as obesity and diabetes.

High blood cholesterol leads to higher cholesterol content in your bile. Your liver filters cholesterol from your blood and deposits it in bile as a waste product before sending the bile to your gallbladder. Chemicals in bile (lecithin and bile salts) are supposed to dissolve cholesterol. But if there’s too much of it, these chemicals might not be up to the task.

Can diet help to prevent gallstones?

You can reduce your risk of cholesterol gallstones, which are the most common type, by reducing cholesterol in your diet. Here are some quick tips:

  • Limit fried and fast foods. These foods are usually fried in saturated fats, which promote LDL cholesterol (the “bad” type). If you cook with oil, choose plant oils instead of animal fats.
  • Replace red meat with fish. Red meat is high in saturated fats, while fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which promote HDL cholesterol (the “good” type). The good type helps balance the bad type.
  • Eat more plants. High-fiber fruits, vegetables and whole grains help to clear out excess cholesterol from your body. Eating more plants can also help you keep your overall weight down.
  • Lose weight gradually. Dieting to lose weight can help reduce the cholesterol content in your blood. But it’s better to lose weight at a slow, steady pace of one to two pounds a week. Rapid weight loss can encourage gallstones.

When should I seek care for gallstones?

If you experience anything like biliary colic, seek immediate attention. Biliary pain is dull and persistent, growing for about 20 minutes and lasting for one to several hours. It’s usually in the upper right quadrant of your abdomen, but sometimes it’s referred elsewhere. It’s often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, but vomiting doesn’t relieve it.

A note from Triborough GI

Gallstones are common, and most people will never be bothered by them. If they stay put in your gallbladder, you’ll probably never know they’re there. But once they begin to move, they become dangerous. These tiny, pebble-like pieces can do a lot of damage when they get into the tight spaces of your delicate biliary system.

A gallbladder attack can be intense and scary, especially if you didn’t know you had gallstones to begin with. It may be alarming to find out that the recommended treatment is surgery. But laparoscopic gallbladder removal is a common procedure with an excellent prognosis. Your whole ordeal may be over within hours of your first symptoms.

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