What Are Gallstones?

The gallbladder is a small organ in the abdomen that stores bile, a digestive enzyme that is produced by the liver. Some people are prone to developing gallstones, hard deposits made by things such as cholesterol, salt, or bilirubin (discarded red blood cells). These stones range in size, from as small as a grain of sand to as large as an apricot. Many affected patients are never aware they have developed gallstones.

About 80% of gallstones are made of cholesterol. While cholesterol does occur naturally in the body, a poor diet may lead to excessive cholesterol production. Risk factors for developing gallstones include:

  • Obesity

  • Poor diet, such as one high in fat or cholesterol

  • Rapid weight loss

  • Eating a high-fiber diet

  • Diabetes

  • Being female

  • Pregnancy

  • Family history of gallstones

  • Native American or Mexican-American heritage

  • Advanced age

  • Cirrhosis of the liver

  • Taking certain medications, including some for lowering cholesterol or containing high amounts of estrogen

Most people who have gallstones never develop symptoms. These “silent gallstones” are generally found only incidentally, during unrelated X-Rays or abdominal surgeries. Only about twenty percent of patients experience symptoms. The most common symptom for these patients is pain in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen, which often radiates to the back, right shoulder, or right shoulder blade. Other common symptoms may include fever, jaundice (a yellowish tinge to the eyes and skin), clay-colored stools, nausea, and/or vomiting.

A gallbladder attack occurs if a gallstone blocks a bile duct, preventing bile from exiting the gallbladder. This is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention. A gallbladder attack is often accompanied by intense stomach and/or back pain, fever, chills, and lack of appetite. Roughly ten percents of patients with silent gallstones will experience a gallbladder attack in the next decade.

Severe gallstones are often treated by removing the gallbladder. This common procedure is usually minimally invasive procedure and performed laparoscopically. The surgeon makes three or four small incisions in the abdomen and inserts a lighted device into these incisions, which is used to remove the gallbladder. The patient is most often able to go home the same day. Some patients receive open surgery, which means a larger incision and longer recovery time. If your doctor believes you are not a good candidate for surgery, medications may prescribed to dissolve gallstones. These medications tend to be very slow-acting, however, and often take years to take full effect.

If you experience symptoms of gallstones, contact your doctor for a proper diagnosis and to discuss the best form of treatment.


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