What are gallstones?
The gallbladder is the organ in your upper right abdomen, right below your liver. It’s a small pouch that stores bile, a green-yellow liquid that helps digestion. Issues with your gallbladder typically happen when blocking of the bile duct occurs.
The most common chemical constituent in creating most gallstones is cholesterol, which hardens. However, in some cases, the stones can have a composite that includes bilirubin. This type of chemical is produced during the normal breakdown of red blood cells.
Gallstones are very common and routinely asymptomatic. However, people diagnosed with gallstones usually develop noticeable symptoms at some point.
Signs and symptoms of gallstones
Gallstones can lead to pain in the center of your stomach, upper right abdomen, or in some cases, your back. You may also experience pain after you eat foods high in fat, but the pain can occur almost any time.
You can feel severe pain caused by gallstone issues that can last for a few hours.
If gallstones are left unidentified or untreated, the symptoms may increase to include:
- High temperature
- Rapid heartbeat
- Yellowing whites of the eyes or skin (Jaundace)
These symptoms can be that the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas has become infected or inflamed. Because gallstone symptoms may have similar symptoms to other issues like appendicitis or pancreatitis, experiencing one or more of these symptoms may require seeing your doctor or going to the emergency room.
Gallstones themselves don’t cause pain. Instead, pain occurs when gallstones block the movement of bile from the gallbladder. People with gallstones that have “silent gallstones” means they don’t experience any pain or symptoms. However, your doctor may accidentally discover stones when doing routine physicals or running other tests such as an x-ray.
The cause of gallstones is thought to be a chemical imbalance of bile inside of the gallbladder. Having an overabundance of cholesterol in your bile can lead to yellow cholesterol stones. Conversely, these hard stones may develop if your liver makes more cholesterol than your bile can dissolve. In addition, some conditions, such as liver damage and certain blood disorders, cause your liver to produce more bilirubin than it should. As a result, these stones’ color is reddish or brown. The gallbladder needs to be able to empty its bile to function correctly. If it fails to open its bile content, the bile becomes overly concentrated, which can cause stones to form.
Your doctor will examine you, checking your eyes and skin for visible color changes. If a yellowish tint appears, it may signify jaundice resulting from too much bilirubin in your body.
There are diagnostic tests that help your doctor diagnose correctly.
These tests may include:
- Ultrasound. An ultrasound produces images of your abdomen.
- CT scan of the abdomen. A CT scan test takes pictures of your liver and abdominal region.
- Gallbladder radionuclide scan. A medical professional injects a radioactive substance into your veins. This substance travels through your blood to the liver and gallbladder and can reveal evidence suggesting a blockage or infection of the bile ducts from the stones.
- Blood tests. Blood tests can measure the amount of bilirubin in your blood and determine how well your liver is functioning.
You often won’t need treatment for gallstones unless they cause you pain. We commonly pass gallstones without even noticing. If you are suffering severe pain, your doctor will likely recommend surgery.
Cholecystectomy, surgery to remove the gallbladder, is one of the most common operations performed on adults. A gallbladder removal involves rerouting the bile from the liver to the small intestine. However, because the gallbladder is not an essential organ, it’s possible to live a healthy life without it.
Suppose you are a high-risk patient for surgery due to complications or age. Nonsurgical procedures may be suggested in an attempt to treat gallstones. These could be procedures called oral dissolution therapy, shock wave lithotripsy, or percutaneous gallbladder drainage. You and your doctor can discuss and educate you on what may be the best treatment plan. However, your gallstones may return if you decide not to perform surgery. Therefore, even if receiving additional treatment, keeping an eye on your condition is essential.
Risk factors for gallstones
Risk factors for gallstones can be related to diet, while others are not as controllable.
Genetic risk factors
- Native American or Mexican descent
- Family history of gallstones
Medical risk factors
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Being pregnant
- Taking certain medications to lower cholesterol
- Taking medicines with a high estrogen content (some types of birth control.)
While some medications may increase your risk of gallstones, please don’t stop taking them unless you have discussed them with your doctor and have their approval.
While there is no foolproof way to prevent gallstones completely, cholesterol plays a significant role in their development. If your family has a history of gallstones, your doctor may advise you to limit your intake of foods with a high saturated fat content.
Some of these foods include:
- Sausage and bacon and fatty meat
- Cookies and cakes
- Lard and cream
- Some cheeses
Keeping your weight within a moderate range is another way to limit the possibility of their formation.
Dr. Jefferey Snow, M.D., P.A. has been one of America’s Top Surgeons three years in a row, and four years in a row was honored as one of Miami Metro Magazine’s Best Doctors in South Florida. Being a senior partner at Surgery Specialists of South Broward for 20 years. He has been active in hospital medical staff leadership throughout his career, having held positions such as Chief of Staff and Vice Chief of Staff. He has chaired several essential hospital committees over the years.
If you have any questions please call our office: (954) 237-1123