Gallstones are small, solid deposits of digestive fluids that have formed in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a little pear-shaped organ that releases bile into the small intestine. However, if the gallbladder doesn’t empty correctly, then a gallstone may form. These hard deposits can be the size of a particle or even as big as a ping-pong ball.
While researchers don’t know the exact cause of gallstones, it is believed that if bile contains too much bilirubin—a chemical byproduct made during the breakdown of red blood cells—or too much cholesterol, then gallstones can form.
Cholesterol gallstones are more common in certain ethnic groups, in those with Crohn’s disease, in pregnant women, in those who’ve lost a great deal of weight, and in those suffering from obesity. Black or brown pigment gallstones typically occur when there is a restricted flow of bile or an infection. Those with blood diseases or liver diseases are also more likely to develop pigment gallstones.
There may actually be no symptoms of a gallstone; however, if one lodges in a duct of the gallbladder and creates a blockage, then a person may feel an intense pain just below their breastbone or in the upper right area of their abdomen. Pain in the right shoulder or between the shoulder blades is common. Intense pain in these areas can last as little as a few minutes to as long as a few hours. Some people have such severe abdominal pain, they may not be able to find a comfortable position while sitting.
Other symptoms include high fevers, chills, and jaundicing of eyes and skin.
Gallstones are believed to be caused by an imbalance in the chemical composition of bile. These chemical imbalances trigger the development of tiny crystals in the bile. Over time, crystals grow into solid stones the size of a pebble. It is not clear how this imbalance comes about. However, it has been proven that gallstones form if there are unusually high cholesterol levels inside the gallbladder. They also form when there are unusually high levels of bilirubin, a waste product, inside the gallbladder.
Gallstones are more common in women who are on the combined Pill or are undergoing a high estrogen dose therapy. Certain medical conditions have also been linked to gallstones. These include cirrhosis (a condition that affects the bile), obstetric cholestasis and primary sclerosing cholangitis.
Gallstones have also been associated with age. You are more likely to get gallstones if you are over 40 years old, with the risk increasing as you get older. Other gallstone risk factors include obesity, use of an antibiotic called ceftriaxone, Crohn’s disease and rapid weight loss. You are also likely to get gallstones if you have a family history of the condition.
Usually gallstones will pass on from the gallbladder to the small intestine. If they get stuck in the bile ducts, then a patient may need to go to the hospital for observation. Oral medications may be taken to dissolve the the stones. Extra-corporeal shock-wave lithotripsy (ESL) may be used, which breaks up the gallstones into smaller pieces that can pass through the ducts.
In severe cases, a doctor may perform a cholecystectomy or a laparosopic surgery—where a slender tube and camera will be inserted into a small incision in the body—to remove the gallbladder.
There are no straightforward ways of preventing gallstones. However, there are measures you can take to lower your risk of developing the condition. For instance, maintaining a healthy weight can help you prevent gallstone predisposing factors like obesity and other gallbladder related problems. It’s also important to avoid rapid weight loss, however, as this can trigger gallstones.
Diet and exercise play a crucial role in the health of your bladder. To keep gallstones at bay, you need to do more than enriching your diet with fruits and vegetables. Include more fibers and nuts in your diet while reducing fats, sugars and excessive alcohol and caffeine. In addition, ensure that you get regular exercise to keep your weight in check.
Avoid medications that can increase your gallstone risk. These include cholesterol-lowering medications like fenofibrate and gemfibrozil as well as hormone replacement medications.