Contrary to the name, gallstones aren’t exactly stones. Instead, they’re solid pieces of material that can start forming in the gallbladder, which is a small organ right under your liver. Many of us have gallstones but just don’t know it. Then, once they block one of your bile ducts, that’s when you feel the pain, and thus treatment is necessary.
Blockages can cause digestive enzymes to get trapped in the pancreas. This can lead to a very painful inflammation called gallstone pancreatitis. If those ducts stay blocked for a long time, the outcome can be fatal. At the very least, infections can occur to the gallbladder, liver or pancreas.
There are two main types of gallstones:
- Cholesterol stones, which are yellow-green in color, and the most common, representing 80% of all gallstones.
- Pigment stones, which are smaller and darker, comprised of bilirubin, a fluid made by your liver and stored in the gallbladder.
Essentially, gallstones are hardened-deposits of digestive fluid that form in the gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ that houses a digestive fluid referred to as bile. That bile is routinely released into your small intestine. Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand to as large as a golf ball. Some people get one, some get several. Medications and gallbladder removal surgery are usually the remedies. If you don’t exhibit symptoms, no surgery or treatment is required.
There can be many causes of gallstones; the exact cause of yours will be determined by a doctor at your visit. Gallstones can have many originations, including:
- Family history
- History of gallbladder problems
- High cholesterol
- Failure of the gallbladder to empty properly
You may be at a higher risk for gallstones if you’re obese, take birth control pills, or hormone replacement therapy for menopause symptoms, are pregnant (due to the extra estrogen), have diabetes, or have pigment stones (common in those suffering from cirrhosis or sickle cell anemia).
Other risk factors you should be on the lookout for include:
- Being female
- Being over the age of 40
- Being sedentary
- Eating a high-fat or high-cholesterol diet
- Having diabetes
- Experiencing rapid weight loss
- Having liver disease
As we said above, you may not be aware you even have gallstones until you experience pain or your doctor finds it through a physical exam or testing. Other symptoms can include:
- Pain in the stomach or upper back that lasts for hours on end
- Sudden and rapidly intensifying pain in the upper right part of the abdomen or just below the breastbone
- Pain between the shoulder blades or right shoulder
- Digestive issues, such as bloating, gas, indigestion and heartburn
Wondering when you should see a doctor? You should call your doctor immediately if you feel stomach pain that’s so intense you can’t sit or lie down comfortably, have yellow skin or whites of the eyes, or have a high fever with the chills.
Those who don’t feel pain or otherwise have symptoms don’t need to take action. However, if you experience any of the above symptoms, get to a gastroenterologist right away.
The first thing your doctor will do if he or she suspects you have gallstones is to give you a thorough exam, then order some blood tests. These will check to see if you have an infection or obstruction. Depending on those results, you will then get an ultrasound, CT scan, MRI or endoscopic ultrasound.
Your doctor may prescribe medications such as chenodiol, ursodiol, or a combination of the two, as they are designed to dissolve gallstones. This is a very conservative approach, as sometimes it can take months or years to dissolve your gallstones in this way. Plus, if you stop taking the meds, your gallstones can come back.
Another option is to have gallbladder removal surgery, called cholecystectomy. This is the optimal treatment, as gallstones frequently recur. After removal of the gallbladder, bile will flow right from your liver into your small intestine. Much like your appendix, you can live without your gallbladder, and having it removed doesn’t affect how you digest food. One immediate effect can be an increase in diarrhea, but this is normal and temporary.
If you or someone you love is suffering from sudden and intense stomach pain, jaundice, fever, nausea, vomiting and pain between the shoulder blades, gallstones could be to blame.
Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing related symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.