The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ located under your liver on the right side of your abdominal area. This organ sometimes produces gallstones, which are sometimes painful and can potentially require surgery. Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to avoid this uncomfortable condition.
The gallbladder produces a digestive fluid called bile. This fluid is released into the small intestine to help the body digest fats. However, sometimes bile can harden into deposits while inside the gallbladder. These deposits, which can range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball, are gallstones. In addition to ranging in size, gallstones can also range in number from one stone to hundreds of stones. Usually, the stone is larger when there is just one, and the stones tend to be very small when there are numerous stones present.
Gallstones may block the bile ducts, preventing bile from getting to the small intestine. It may also clog other ducts and prevent bile from coming out of the liver where it originates or from going to and from the gallbladder. In any case, blocked ducts can cause inflammation in the gallbladder, the ducts or the liver. If the ducts remain blocked, it can cause damage or infection in these areas of the body.
There are two main types of gallstones. The first are cholesterol stones, which have yellow-green color and are composed of mostly hardened cholesterol. About 80 percent of gallstones are cholesterol stones.
The other type of gallstones is pigment stones. These stones are much darker in color and composed of bilirubin, which is a waste product found in the body.
There are sometimes no signs or symptoms present when a gallstone has formed. However, there are several key symptoms associated with gallstones which have caused a blockage, including:
- Sudden pain in the upper right area of the abdomen that rapidly gets worse
- Sudden pain in the center area of the abdomen that rapidly gets worse
- Pain in the right shoulder
- Pain in the back between the shoulder blades
These symptoms may last for a few minutes or a few hours, depending on the size of the gallstone and/or the seriousness of the blockage that has occurred.
Causes And Risk Factors
Though it is not always clear why gallstones form, the main causes of gallstones include:
- Excess cholesterol in the bile. Cholesterol is excreted by the liver and then dissolved by chemicals in bile. However, the chemicals cannot handle high levels of cholesterol in the gallbladder, causing the cholesterol to harden and form gallstones.
- Excess bilirubin in the bile. Too much bilirubin in the bile can cause gallstones to form. Bilirubin is sometimes produced in excess with certain conditions, such as liver cirrhosis and certain blood disorders.
- Gallbladder problems. If the gallbladder isn’t emptying correctly, the bile can become concentrated and cause gallstones to form.
In addition, there are several risk factors which can increase an individual’s risk of getting gallstones, including:
- Sex. Women are twice as likely to develop gallstones as men are. This is linked to the fact that excess estrogen in the system may increase cholesterol levels in bile and decrease gallbladder movement.
- Ethnicity. American Indians have the highest rate of gallstones in the U.S. Additionally, Mexican-Americans have higher rates of developing gallstones.
- Family history. Those with family members who have gotten gallstones are more likely to develop this condition.
- Poor diet. Diets high in cholesterol and fat, and low in fiber can increase the risk of developing gallstones
- Weight. Being overweight increases the risk of developing gallstones.
- Rapid weight loss. When a person loses weight rapidly, it can cause the liver to secrete extra cholesterol into bile and form gallstones.
- Diabetes. Those with diabetes have a higher risk of getting gallstones.
- Age. People over the age of 9 are more likely to develop gallstones.
- Cholesterol-lowering drugs. These drugs may increase the level of cholesterol that is secreted into bile, increasing the risk of gallstone formation.
The best way to prevent gallstones is to be vigilant about your weight and how you diet. Being obese or overweight increases the risk of developing gallstones, so it’s important to strive to achieve and maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise. However, make sure you lose weight slowly since rapid weight loss often leads to gallstones. Finally, don’t skip meals, regardless of whether you are dieting or not. Stick to relatively regular mealtimes in order to reduce the risk of developing gallstones.
Gallstones often require medical treatment or surgery. However, it’s important to seek immediate medical care if you experience any of the following symptoms associated with very dangerous gallstones:
- High fever with chills
- Nausea or vomiting
- Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
- Pain which persists for more than 5 hours
- Intense abdominal pain that makes it nearly impossible to get comfortable
If a gallstone doesn’t cause any symptoms, it generally will not require treatment. However, if you do experience signs or symptoms and tend to have gallstones regularly, your doctor may recommend having your gallbladder removed since the organ isn’t needed by the body. Those who can’t undergo surgery may be given medications to help dissolve the gallstones.