Gallstones form when cholesterol and bilirubin form crystals in the gallbladder. These can grow over time, and increase in number. If your gallbladder has trouble emptying properly, gallstones can be a result.
Serum cholesterol levels don’t really affect the risk of forming stones. But obesity is a risk for forming gallstones. Losing weight too quickly can lead your body to create too much cholesterol, which, in turn, increases your chance of gallstones.
Symptoms of gallstones
Many people who have gallstones never develop symptoms. Gallstones can cause symptoms by blocking the flow of bile from the gallbladder, or by directly irritating and damaging the gallbladder wall. Then, symptoms may include:
- pain in the upper abdomen and upper back that can last for several hours at a time.
- nausea or vomiting.
- bloating, indigestion and heartburn.
- Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes) and dark urine if stones block the main bile duct.
The pain from gallstones may appear after eating foods that are high in fat. It will often last a few hours before abating.
How are gallstones diagnosed?
Your doctor will start by talking about your symptoms and performing a physical exam. You may also have tests that include blood tests to rule out infection or other conditions. An ultrasound is the best test to diagnose gallstones and gallbladder disease. A CT scan may also be ordered.
Gallstone and gallbladder disease treatment
Surgery is the only effective treatment for gallstones and gallbladder disease. When performed by an experienced surgeon it is safe, and usually, leads to complete relief of symptoms with a fast recovery. Most people function normally afterward with few noticeable effects. There are two types of surgery that are performed:
- Laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal). This is a minimally invasive surgery performed using a small lighted camera and long instruments. They are passed into your abdominal cavity through small incisions. Laparoscopic surgery causes less discomfort and is associated with a quicker healing time. Usually, patients return home the day of surgery and return to normal activities in about 5 to 7 days.
- Open cholecystectomy. This involves a larger incision through with the gallbladder is removed. It can be necessary if the gallbladder is to scarred from inflammation or chronic disease to be safely removed laparoscopically. Open surgery typically involves a short stay in the hospital and a longer recovery time. The end result of full symptom relief is usually the same.
In some cases, gallstones can pass into the main bile duct. This can cause the same symptoms as stones in the gallbladder, but can also lead to a serious liver infection. They must be removed, and usually are taken care of with an endoscopic procedure known as an ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography). In this procedure, a physician opens the end of the bile duct to remove the stones using a flexible scope passed through the mouth. This is them combined with laparoscopic cholecystectomy to fully treat all the stone disease.
The internet is filled with many “alternative” or “natural” gallbladder remedies, but beware! These are completely ineffective at best, and possibly dangerous at worst. “Cleanses” and “lithotripsy” can cause a severe infection from bile duct blockage, or life-threatening pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). Likewise, there are no medicines that can dissolve gallstones or effectively relieve symptoms. A low-fat diet may minimize symptoms for a while, but will not cure them. Gallbladder removal is the only safe way to treat gallstones and gallbladder disease.
Gallbladder surgery is one of the most common surgical procedures. Our physicians at The Surgery Group are experienced and expert at diagnosing and treating gallbladder disease. Please call for an evaluation of your specific symptoms.