Gallstones are deposits of digestive fluid made of solidified substances found in bile, like cholesterol. They are common and may or may not produce symptoms. People with symptoms usually need to have their gallbladders taken out.
Read on to learn more about gallstones, the symptoms they can cause, and how to treat them.
Your gallbladder is a small organ in your upper right abdomen, right below your liver. It’s a pouch that stores bile, a green-yellow liquid that helps digestion. Issues with your gallbladder typically occur when something is blocking its bile duct—like a gallstone.
Most gallstones are created when substances found in bile, like cholesterol, harden. Gallstones are very common and routinely asymptomatic.
Gallstones can lead to pain in the upper right abdomen or the center of your stomach. You may experience gallbladder pain from time to time after you eat foods that are high in fat, such as fried foods, but the pain can occur at almost any time.
Pain caused by gallstone issues usually lasts for only a few hours, but it can feel severe.
If gallstones are left untreated or unidentified, the symptoms may increase to include:
- a high temperature
- rapid heartbeat
- yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
- itchy skin
- a loss of appetite
These symptoms can be signs of a gallbladder infection, or inflammation of the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas.
Because gallstone symptoms may mimic the symptoms of other serious issues like appendicitis and pancreatitis, no matter what, if you’re dealing with one or more of these issues — it’s time to see a doctor or get yourself to the ER.
Gallstones themselves don’t cause pain. Rather, pain occurs when gallstones block the movement of bile from the gallbladder.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, about 80 percent of people who have gallstones have “silent gallstones.” This means they don’t experience pain or have symptoms. In these cases, your doctor may discover the gallstones from X-rays or during abdominal surgery.
The actual cause of gallstones is thought to be due to a chemical imbalance of bile inside of the gallbladder. While researchers still aren’t clear about what exactly causes that imbalance to happen, there are a few possible reasons:
Too much cholesterol in your bile
Having too much cholesterol in your bile can lead to yellow cholesterol stones. These hard stones may develop if your liver makes more cholesterol than your bile can dissolve.
Too much bilirubin in your bile
Bilirubin is a chemical produced during the normal breakdown of red blood cells. After it’s created, it passes through the liver and is eventually excreted out of the body.
Some conditions, such as liver damage and certain blood disorders, cause your liver to produce more bilirubin than it should. Pigment gallstones form when your gallbladder can’t break down the excess bilirubin. These hard stones are often dark brown or black.
Concentrated bile due to a full gallbladder
Your gallbladder needs to be able to empty its bile to function properly. If it fails to empty its bile content, the bile becomes overly concentrated, which can cause stones to form.
Most of the time, you won’t need treatment for gallstones unless they cause you pain. Sometimes you can pass gallstones without even noticing. If you’re in pain, your doctor will likely recommend surgery. In rare cases, medication may be used.
If you’re at high risk for surgery complications, there are a few nonsurgical ways to attempt to treat gallstones. However, if surgery isn’t performed, your gallstones may come back — even with additional treatment. This means you may need to keep an eye on your condition for the majority of your life.
Cholecystectomy, which is surgery to remove the gallbladder, is
There are two types of cholecystectomy:
- Laparoscopic cholecystectomy. This is a common surgery that requires general anesthesia. The surgeon will usually make three or four incisions in your abdomen. They’ll then insert a small, lighted device into one of the incisions, check for stones, and carefully remove your gallbladder. You can usually go home on the day of the procedure or the day after if you have no complications.
- Open cholecystectomy.This surgery is typically performed when the gallbladder is inflamed, infected, or scarred. This surgery may also happen if problems occur during a laparoscopic cholecystectomy.
You may experience loose or watery stools after gallbladder removal. Removing a gallbladder involves rerouting the bile from the liver to the small intestine. Bile no longer goes through the gallbladder and it becomes less concentrated. The immediate result is a laxative effect that can cause diarrhea, but this issue should resolve on its own for most people.
If surgery can’t be performed, such as if the patient is a much older individual, there are a few other ways doctors can try to get rid of your gallstones.
- Oral dissolution therapy typically includes using the medications ursodiol (Actigall) and chenodiol (Chenix) to break up gallstones. These medications contain bile acids, which work to break up the stones. This treatment is best suited for breaking up cholesterol stones and can take many months or years to work completely.
- Shock wave lithotripsy is another option. A lithotripter is a machine that generates shock waves that pass through a person. These shock waves can break gallstones into smaller pieces.
- Percutaneous drainage of the gallbladder involves placing a sterile needle into the gallbladder to aspirate (draw out) bile. A tube is then inserted to help with additional drainage. This procedure isn’t typically a first line of defense and tends to be an option for individuals who may not be suited for other procedures.
Some risk factors for gallstones are related to diet, while other factors are not as controllable. Uncontrollable risk factors are things like age, race, sex, and family history.
Lifestyle risk factors
- living with obesity
- a diet high in fat or cholesterol and low in fiber
- undergoing rapid weight loss
- living with type 2 diabetes
Genetic risk factors
- being born female
- being of Native American or Mexican descent
- having a family history of gallstones
- being 60 years or older
Medical risk factors
- living with cirrhosis
- being pregnant
- taking certain medications to lower cholesterol
- taking medications with a high estrogen content (like certain birth controls)
While some medications may increase your risk of gallstones, don’t stop taking them unless you have discussed it with your doctor and have their approval.
Your doctor will perform a physical examination that includes checking your eyes and skin for visible changes in color. A yellowish tint may be a sign of jaundice, the result of too much bilirubin in your body.
The exam may involve using diagnostic tests that help your doctor see inside your body. These tests include:
- Ultrasound. An ultrasound produces images of your abdomen. It’s the preferred imaging method to confirm that you have gallstone disease. It can also show abnormalities associated with acute cholecystitis.
- Abdominal CT scan. This imaging test takes pictures of your liver and abdominal region.
- Gallbladder radionuclide scan. This important scan takes about one hour to complete. A specialist injects a radioactive substance into your veins. The substance travels through your blood to the liver and gallbladder. On a scan, it can reveal evidence to suggest infection or blockage of the bile ducts from stones.
- Blood tests. Your doctor may order blood tests that measure the amount of bilirubin in your blood. The tests also help determine how well your liver is functioning.
To help improve your condition and reduce your risk of gallstones, try these tips:
- Eat fewer refined carbs (like cookies and white bread) and less sugar.
- Increase your intake of healthy fats, like fish oil and olive oil, which may help your gallbladder contract and empty on a regular basis.
- Eat the proper amount of fiber per day (women need about 25 grams a day, men need about 38 grams a day).
- Get some sort of physical activity every day.
- Keep yourself properly hydrated.
If you plan to lose weight, do it slowly. Rapid weight loss may increase your risk of gallstones and other health problems.
While there is no foolproof way to completely prevent gallstones, cholesterol seems to play a major role in their formation. If you have a family history of gallstones, your doctor may advise you to limit foods with a high saturated fat content. Some of these foods include:
- fatty meat, like sausage and bacon
- cakes and cookies
- lard and cream
- certain cheeses
Because people living with obesity are more predisposed to gallstones, keeping your weight within a moderate range is another way to limit the possibility of their formation.
If your doctor has diagnosed you with gallstones and decides you need surgery to remove them or your gallbladder, the outlook is often positive. In most cases of stone removal, stones don’t return.
If you aren’t able to have surgery and decide to take medication to dissolve the stones, the gallstones can return, so you and your doctor will need to monitor your progress.
If your gallstones aren’t causing symptoms, you will most likely not need to do anything. Still, you may want to make lifestyle changes to prevent them from getting bigger and causing problems.