If you’ve recently experienced the pain of gallstones, you may have visited a doctor and become interested in learning more about this medical condition. At Great Lakes Gastroenterology, we’re extremely experienced in helping individuals deal with gallstones and we thought it would be a good idea to put together a useful guide that explains more about this condition that affects so many people.
What Are Gallstones?
Gallstones are made of cholesterol deposits that can accumulate inside your gallbladder. This small organ is shaped like a pear and sits underneath your liver on the right side of your abdomen. The primary function of the gallbladder is to store bile created by the liver and move it to the small intestine where the secreted bile helps the digestive tract to digest fats.
Sometimes, excess cholesterol and other bile components crystalize and solidify, becoming gallstones. These hardened deposits can vary in size and can be negligibly small or become large enough to block the ducts between the gallbladder and the small intestine. Typically, they do not require treatment unless a blockage occurs or you experience other negative symptoms.
Researchers can’t be certain about what exactly causes the changes in bile or gallbladder function that can lead to gallstone formation. However, there are certain factors that put people at a higher risk for developing them. These risk factors include:
- Aging: People have an increased risk of gallstones after around age 40
- Sex: Females are more likely to develop gallstones than males
- Weight: Obesity increases the risk of gallstones
- Lifestyle: Being sedentary, heavy alcohol consumption, smoking, eating a high fat/low fiber diet, or losing weight too quickly can all increase your risk of gallstones
- Ethnicity: Some people of Native American or Mexican ethnicity are more likely to develop gallstones
- Other health considerations: Being diabetic, being pregnant, having high cholesterol or having a family history of gallstones can increase your risk
Most gallstones do not cause any noticeable symptoms and resolve on their own. However, sometimes people with gallstones may experience some of the following symptoms:
Symptoms that merit medical attention sooner rather than later also include:
- Yellowing of the skin or eyes
- Severe pain (in the upper right abdomen which may radiate to the upper center abdomen or even into the right shoulder or middle of the upper back area between the shoulder blades)
- Light colored stools or tea colored urine
These symptoms may indicate a blockage or infection due to gallstone formation and should be treated by a doctor as soon as possible.
At Great Lakes Gastroenterology, we are very experienced when it comes to assessing and treating gallbladder and biliary tract issues. Depending on the severity of your symptoms and the risk or presence of complications, we may recommend a variety of treatments. For gallstones that are not producing any symptoms, treatment is likely unnecessary. But for gallstones that are causing you discomfort or complications, or in the case of repeated occurrences, we may recommend treatments that range from medication and monitoring to surgical removal of the gallbladder. While this may sound frightening, rest assured that it is a common and routine surgery for our skilled medical practitioners.