Gallstones are hard, pebble-like pieces of solid material that form from cholesterol or bilirubin in your gallbladder. These gallstones range in size. Some stones are as small as a grain of sand, while others are as large as a golf ball. Having just one gallstone or more than one gallstones are both possible.
There are two main kinds of gallstones:
- Cholesterol stones. These yellow-green stones are the most common kind, accounting for 80% of gallstone.
- Pigment stones. These stones are made of bilirubin and are smaller and darker.
In many cases, people with gallstones experience no symptoms, and thus they even don’t realize that they have gallstones. These stones can be called “silent gallstone”. This condition usually requires no treatment. But if gallstones cause a blockage, symptoms may occur, including:
- Sudden and rapidly intensifying pain in the upper right portion of your abdomen
- Sudden and rapidly intensifying pain in the center of your abdomen, just below your breastbone
- Back pain between your shoulder blades
- Pain in your right shoulder
- Nausea or vomiting
Doctors don’t know what exactly makes gallstones form in your gallbladder, but it is thought that gallstones may take shape when:
- Your bile contains too much cholesterol
- Your bile contains too much bilirubin
- Your gallbladder doesn’t empty correctly
Your risk of gallstones will be increased
- Are female
- Are 40 or older
- Are a native American
- Are a Mexican-American
- Are overweight or obese
- Are sedentary
- Are pregnant
- Eat a high-fat diet
- Eat a high-cholesterol diet
- Eat a low-fiber diet
- Have a family history of gallstones
- Have diabetes
- Lose weight very quickly
- Take medications that contain estrogen, such as oral contraceptives or hormone therapy drugs
- Have liver disease
Gallstones may lead to some complications, such
- Inflammation of the gallbladder
If a gallstone becomes lodged in the neck
of the gallbladder, your gallbladder will be inflamed, causing severe pain and
- Blockage of the common bile duct
Gallstones may block the tubes through
which bile flows from your gallbladder or liver to your small intestine,
leading to jaundice and bile duct infection.
- Blockage of the pancreatic duct
Gallstone may also block the pancreatic
duct. Due to the blockage, pancreas will be inflamed and cause intense,
constant abdominal pain.
- Gallbladder cancer
Having a history of gallstones will increase your risk of gallbladder cancer, but this case is very rare.
Your doctor may use the following tests and
procedures to diagnose gallstones:
- Tests to create pictures of your gallbladder
Images created by an abdominal ultrasound
or a CT scan may be analyzed to look for signs of gallstones.
- Tests to check your bile ducts for gallstones
Tests such as a hepatobiliary iminodiacetic
acid (HIDA) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or endoscopic retrograde
cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) can help your doctor determine whether a
gallstone is causing blockage.
- Blood tests to look for complications
Blood tests can help your doctor confirm whether you have complications caused by gallstones.
Treatment is not necessary unless you have symptoms. Based on your symptoms and the result of diagnosis, your doctor will decide whether you need treatment. Treatment options usually include:
- Surgery to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy)
Considering that gallstones often recur, your
doctor may recommend surgery to remove the gallbladder. Without gallbladder, bile
will flow directly from your liver into your small intestine. After the
removal, your digestive ability will not be affected. But you may sometimes
have temporary diarrhea.
- Medications to dissolve gallstones
You can take medications by mouth to help dissolve gallstones. However, it usually takes months or years to dissolve gallstones, and they will form again once you stop the treatment. In some cases, medications are not effective. Therefore, this option is not commonly recommended. It is reserved for people who can’t have a surgery.