Your gallbladder is a tiny pear-shaped organ below your liver. This pouch is responsible for storing bile that assists in digesting food. However, cholesterol stones or gallstones can form in your gallbladder, inflaming it or the pancreas. It can cause severe abdominal pain that may require hospitalization.
In some cases, gallstones can also block the bile duct, resulting in excruciating pain, fever, and jaundice. The intensity of pain can be mild or severe, and last about thirty minutes to an hour. Originally, gallstones are hardened fluid deposits in your gallbladder so they don’t result in symptoms. In that case, you don’t need treatment.
But when these stones dislodge to the bile duct, they cause pain, nausea, fatigue, and fever. This calls for immediate medical help. A medical professional will recommend appropriate treatment depending on your gallstone condition.
An Introduction to Gallstones
Gallstones are stone-like deposits that form in the bile duct or gallbladder. They can be as tiny as a grain of sand to as big as a cricket ball.
Typically, smaller gallstones are more troublesome since they can get stuck as they leave your gallbladder. On the other hand, larger stones remain within the gallbladder and do not cause much discomfort.
Where do Gallstones Develop?
Gallstones are typically found inside the gallbladder in the form of cholesterol stones. However, these stones can travel from your gallbladder down to your common bile duct (a duct pipe in your liver).
Types of Gallstones
Gallstones are hardened materials present inside your body. They may be of two types:
The most common type of gallstone, cholesterol stones, are made from fatty substances in your blood. These stones are yellow-green.
Pigment stones contain bilirubin, which forms when RBCs break down in your liver. When extra bilirubin leaks into your bloodstream, your eyes and skin turn yellow.
These stones are typically smaller and darker.
Facts to Remember
- Gallstones, commonly misspelled as either gall stone or gall stones, are solid, stone-like structures in the gallbladder or bileduct, made from bilirubin or cholesterol.
- If you experience abdominal pain with jaundice, vomiting, fever, sweating, fever, or a fever that over-the-counter medications are unable to treat, consider contacting your doctor
- Treatment for gallstones may include various medical procedures necessary for either breaking up or dissolving gallstones. In severe cases, doctors surgically remove your gallbladder.
Causes of Gallstones
In-depth research by Harvard Health Publication reveals that about 80% percent gallstones are cholesterol stones, whereas the other 20% develop from calcium salts or bilirubin.
Unfortunately, the exact cause of gallstones is unknown. However, doctors believe they develop because of the following reasons:
Excess of Cholesterol in Your Bile
When cholesterol starts accumulating in your bile, your gallbladder develops yellow-colored, cholesterol, stone-like structures.
These stones may be because your liver has more cholesterol than your bile can dissolve.
Critical Concentration of Bilirubin Present in Your Bile
Bilirubin refers to a specific chemical produced every time your liver kills an old RBC. In certain conditions like blood disorders and liver damage, your liver ends up making too much bilirubin.
Pigment gallstones may develop if your gallbladder can’t diminish too much bilirubin. These stones are typically small and black or dark brown.
Concentrated bile due to Full Gallbladder
Your gallbladder often empties its bile to ensure healthy and appropriate functioning. If your gallbladder fails to empty its contents, gallstones may start forming.
Due to Other Conditions
Gallstones may also develop due to various other conditions such as blood disorders, choledocholithiasis, and liver cirrhosis.
Lastly, gallstones may develop during pregnancy or when you lose a significant amount of weight rapidly.
Signs and Symptoms of Gallstones
The symptoms and signs of gallstones may vary significantly based on the size and weight of a gallstone. Most people fail to recognize the presence of gallstones because most don’t cause any symptoms. These types of gallstones are referred to as silent stones and require neither a diagnosis nor treatment.
On the flip side, some gallstones may lead to pain in your right abdomen. You may suffer from gallbladder pain periodically, depending on whether you consume foods that are high in fats. Typically, the main lasts for a couple of hours. In case gallstones cause symptoms, they may be:
- Associated pain in your shoulder
- Chest pain
- Clay-colored stools
- Dark urine
- Jaundice leads to a yellow tint to your eyes and skin
- Repeated similar episodes
You may even experience pain in various areas, including:
- The upper part of your abdomen
- Between your shoulder blades
- Under the right side of your shoulder
When people experience these pains without having gallstones, such a condition is called biliary colic and gallbladder attack. They mimic gallstones symptoms, but actually, a thick sludge causes gallstone-like pain. Another rare condition that causes such pain in the absence of gallstones is acalculous cholecystitis.
The chances of developing gallstones are high if you:
- Are a woman
- Are Native American or Mexican descent
- Are you overweight or have an unhealthy diet
- Are over the age of 40
- Do you eat a diet that is rich in cholesterol and fat
- Have a family history of gallstones
- Have you recently lost significant weight
- Have diabetes or Crohn’s disease
- Have a blood disorder
- Take drugs that lower cholesterol
- Take a wide variety of medicines which include oral contraceptives
Diagnosis of Gallstones
The diagnosis of gallstones includes a physical exam. They may also order tests such as:
That looks for signs and symptoms of blockage or infection. These tests are also helpful for ruling out other conditions.
These tests picture the inside of your body.
Abdominal CT Scans
In CT scans, the doctors utilize a specialized x-ray to get a closer look inside your body. It includes your gallbladder and your abdomen.
Magnetic Resonance Cholangiopancreatography (MRCP)
MRCP utilizes a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy to create images of your internal organs, including the liver and gallbladder.
Cholescintigraphy (HIDA Scan)
HIDA scans check whether your gallbladder squeezes appropriately. Your doctor will inject a radioactive material and ensure it reaches your organ.
At the same time, a technician will observe its movements.
Gallbladder Radionuclide Scan
Radionuclide scans typically take at least an hour to complete. In these scans, your doctor will inject a specific radioactive substance into your veins.
This harmless substance travels through your blood and reaches your gallbladder and liver. On the scanning screen, specialists can spot evidence that suggests blockage or infection of your bile ducts.
Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP)
ERCP involves your doctor running a particular type of tube referred to as an ‘endoscope’ via your mouth and to your small intestine.
Your doctor will inject a dye to make it easy to spot your bile duct on a camera fixed within the endoscope. This way, they can easily remove gallstones that reach the ducts.
Endoscopic ultrasounds combine ultrasounds with endoscopy to get a better look at your gallstones.
Although there is no permanent cure for gallstones, you can take several medical measures to relieve symptoms or remove stones. Keep in mind that these treatments will be temporary at best.
If a patient experiences painful gallstones symptoms, surgical removal of the gallbladder may be the only helpful treatment. Asymptomatic gallstones, where the patient experiences no symptoms, do not require any treatment.
Extracorporeal Shockwave Lithotripsy (ESWL)
A unique device is used that produces shock waves to break down gallstones into smaller pieces. It involves the following steps:
- The tiny pieces will pass through your biliary system without blocking
- The procedure is usually done in the presence of ERCP to remove various stones
- Most people who undergo ESWL suffer intense pains or suffer attacks in the upper part of their abdomen after treatment
- The effectiveness of this treatment is not fully established
Various drugs manufactured from bile acids are used to dissolve gallstones
- The treatment may take months or years for all gallstones to dissolve
- The stones may come back even after the treatment finishes
- These drugs are helpful for cholesterol stones
- They may result in mild diarrhea
- This treatment is for people who are unable to undergo surgery
Typically, the treatment for complicated gallstones or symptomatic gallstones involves surgical removal of your gallbladder and is referred to as cholecystectomy.
People suffering from gallbladder disease may be concerned about the removal of their gallbladder. However, removing the gallbladder does not affect the functioning of the body by a significant amount. In fact:
- You can live without a gallbladder
- Living without your gallbladder does not require any changes in your overall diet
- In case you lack a gallbladder, the bile flows directly flows to your small intestine
- Since there is nowhere for the bile to store, it may flow into the intestine. Although not harmful or dangerous, about 1% of patients suffer from mild diarrhea.
Prevention Methods of Gallbladder Problems
While there’s no single way of preventing gallstones, there are some helpful tips you can follow. It includes:
- Eating three balanced meals regularly
- Maintaining a healthy and optimum weight
- Exercising regularly
- Drinking alcohol less frequently
- It is also essential to manage other health conditions that can raise your risk of suffering from developing gallstones. It includes diabetes and high cholesterol
Tips to Follow Before Treatment
First and foremost, visit your family doctor or a general practitioner if you’re worried about signs or symptoms.
If your doctor suspects you’re suffering from gallstones, they may refer you to a doctor that specializes in gastroenterology. Here are some tips to follow:
- Make sure you’re aware of all pre-appointment restrictions. While making your appointment, make sure you ask to question your doctor about things you need to do in advance
- Jott down the symptoms you’re suffering from, including the ones that seem irrelevant
- Make a list of your personal information, such as major stresses
- Create an exhaustive list of all medications, including supplements and vitamins that you’re taking
- Ask your friend or family member to tag along to ensure you can provide the doctor with all the necessary information
- List down your queries that you would like to discuss with the doctor
Is Diet Connected to Development of Gallstones?
The role of your diet and its effects on the formation of gallstones is unclear. Here are some known facts about how the development of gallstones is connected to your diet:
- The increased level of cholesterol in your blood increases the risk of gallstones
- Thus, it is a reasonable assumption that a diet rich in fats and cholesterol can increase the risk of the development of gallstones; however, keep in mind that the amount of cholesterol in your bile does not correlate to your blood cholesterol
- Losing weight rapidly may increase the risk of development of gallstones
- Obesity is another risk factor
- Eating a fatty or greasy meal can exacerbate the symptoms of gallstones
If your gallbladder is removed from your body, you may experience loose stools or diarrhea for a couple of weeks. It may be because of the release of bile into your intestines. A couple of ways to reduce these side effects is by avoiding the following foods:
- Cream sauces
- Highly fatty food
- Full-fat dairy
- Greasy or fried foods
- Processed foods
Instead, eat fiber-rich food that has low fat. According to recent research, you should eat foods with less than 3 grams of fats. Instead, try to increase your fiber intake.
Complications of Gallbladder Issues
There are several complications of a gallstone attack. It includes:
- Abdominal pain
- Back pain
- Chest pain
- Gallbladder cancer
- Gallstones may lead to an infection in your gallbladder or bile duct
- A blockage in your common bile duct may lead to jaundice or may irritate your pancreas
- Gallbladder inflammation
- Infected bile ducts
- Shoulder pain
- Blocked bile ducts
Can Children Get Gallstones?
Gallstones may develop in adults, as well as children. Although gallstones are most common in middle-aged adults, they are not the only one who experiences them.
One huge roadblock when identifying gallstones in children is the lack of recognizable symptoms. Often young children experience difficulty pinpointing where the pain originates from.
If your child is experiencing unusual symptoms, inflammation, or abdominal pain, consult your doctor immediately.
When Should You Visit a Doctor?
If a person has recurring episodes of extreme abdominal pain that lasts at least half an hour or an hour after meals, you should consider contacting your health care practitioner. Visit a hospital if the person suffering from abdominal pain has one of these conditions:
- The abdominal pain does not get better with over-the-counter medications
- The person starts vomiting
- They develop a fever, sweats, or chills
- They have jaundice
The Bottom Line
Gallstone is an incurable but preventable disease, affecting a large number of people globally. In some cases, gallstones may be painful and dangerous, depending on their size and location. People with gallstones find it difficult to digest fatty food. Therefore, you should always avoid having unhealthy food and switch to a protein-rich diet as it can help improve the health of your bile and gallbladder. Following a healthy diet for your gallbladder can benefit your overall health.
Remember, there is no permanent cure for gallstones. However, patients may seek various medical measures to relieve symptoms or remove stones. Medications, shockwave therapies, and surgical procedures are the common ways to treat your gallstone problem.
However, when dissolving these fatty stones becomes impossible, then doctors would ultimately remove the gallbladder. It is not a complicated process but requires aftercare for quick, infection-free healing. Don’t forget to follow this post to learn more about gallstones and diet plans for people with gallstones.