What are gallstones?

The gallbladder is a small organ that sits just below the liver on the right side of your abdomen. Its purpose is to hold bile, the digestive juice that helps remove toxins and waste from the body. Bile also helps break down fat as well as fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. From the gallbladder, bile moves through the bile ducts (small tubes) to the small intestine.

If there is an imbalance of cholesterol, bile salts and bilirubin (a waste product) in the bile, gallstones (hardened deposits) may form. Gallstones may be as tiny as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball, and there may be hundreds of small stones or one larger one. A person with gallstones may have no symptoms at all (“silent” gallstones), but if the gallstones block the bile ducts, the blockage can cause pain and other symptoms.

Who is at risk of developing gallstones?

While anyone can develop this condition, some people may be more at risk for gallstones, including:

  • People over age 40
  • People with a family history of gallstones
  • Native Americans (due to genetic factor causing increased cholesterol in bile)
  • Mexican Americans

Additional risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Rapid weight loss (such as with bariatric surgery)
  • Poor diet
  • Intestinal diseases
  • Diabetes

Women are also more at risk of developing gallstones, particularly during pregnancy or while taking birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, due to increased amounts of estrogen, which causes more cholesterol in the bile.

Symptoms of gallstones

If you have no symptoms, there may be no need for treatment. However, if you have a gallbladder “attack,” in which the gallstones are blocking the bile ducts, you may experience painful symptoms, such as:

  • Sharp pain in the upper right abdomen
  • Pain that spreads to upper right of your back or shoulder blade
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Jaundice (yellowing of eyes or skin)

Some people experience chest pain similar to a heart attack.

Diagnosis and testing of gallstones

If you have any of these types of symptoms, be sure to visit your doctor. In order to diagnose your condition, the doctor may recommend a number of tests, which may include:

In some cases, the doctor may suggest endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), a procedure that allows the physician to examine and remove gallstones without surgery.

Treatment for gallstones often includes diet and lifestyle changes, and removal of the gallbladder (cholecystectomy). This is a standard procedure as the gallbladder is not a necessary organ.



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