Gallstones are hardened deposits of cholesterol and bilirubin, both found in the digestive fluid bile. Gallstones form in the gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ on the right side of your abdomen, beneath your liver. It stores bile produced by your liver and releases it in response to the presence of food in the duodenum. Bile is required for proper digestion of fats. Gallstones can develop when excessive fat is present in your bile, resulting in either cholesterol stones (the most common type) or pigment stones. Gallstones can range in number and size—from a grain of sand to a golf ball.
What Causes Gallstones?
While it isn’t exactly clear what causes gallstones, doctors believe they can form under the following conditions:
- when your bile contains more cholesterol than your body can dissolve
- too much bilirubin in your bile (due to diseases such as cirrhosis)
- your gallbladder doesn’t empty properly
You are at an increased risk of getting gallstones if you fall into one or more of the following categories:
- over the age of 60
- overweight or obese
- people who eat a diet low in fiber and high in fat
- people who take cholesterol medicine
- people who fast regularly
- Native or Mexican Americans
The Gallbladder Attack
You might be having a “gallbladder attack” if you experience pain in your upper right abdomen, right shoulder, or between your shoulder blades—especially after eating a high-fat meal. Symptoms of a serious gallbladder complication include:
Sometimes there are no symptoms associated with the presence of gallstones. These are referred to as “silent stones” and are often discovered when investigating another condition.
Test & Treatments
An ultrasound is the main test used to detect gallstones, but other tests include CT scans and nuclear scans. If gallstones are discovered in association with abdominal pain, your doctor will usually recommend surgery to remove your gallbladder (cholecystectomy).
Gallbladder surgery is one of the most common surgeries in the U.S. and is the preferred treatment option because gallstones generally recur. While the gallbladder serves a purpose, it is not an essential organ and can be removed with little effect to the body’s functions. Instead of being stored in the gallbladder, bile will simply flow straight from the liver, where it’s made, to the small intestine.
Alternatively, an oral pill can be taken to slowly dissolve gallstones. This method is ideal for people who aren’t good candidates for surgery. However, it can take months to years for gallstones to dissolve completely, and more can develop in that time. Treatment is not required for silent stones, unless you develop the symptoms of a gallbladder attack.