Gallstones are a common health problem, with as many as one in four people experiencing a “gallbladder attack” each year. What causes this? Here’s what you need to know.
WHAT ARE GALLSTONES?
The gallbladder is a small organ that stores bile made by the liver. The body uses bile to help break down and digest the fats you eat.
Occasionally, substances within the bile harden into small pieces called “gallstones.” When a gallstone blocks the common bile duct, which is the only exit for bile from the gallbladder, pain and other symptoms occur.
RISK FACTORS FOR GALLSTONES
While researchers don’t know exactly what causes gallstones to form in some people, they do know certain people are more likely to develop gallstones than others. Risk factors for gallstones include:
- Being female. Women are more likely to develop gallstones than men.
- Age. Gallstones are more prevalent in people over age 40.
- Family history. If your parents or siblings had gallstones, you’re more likely to get them, too.
- American Indian heritage. The highest rate of gallstones in the U.S. occurs in Native American women.
- Mexican American heritage.
- Obesity. Overweight people of both sexes are at higher risk of developing gallstones.
- Rapid weight loss. The chance of experiencing symptoms from gallstones increases after procedures like bariatric (weight loss) surgery.
- Metabolic syndrome or diabetes. Metabolic syndrome refers to a group of medical characteristics related to being overweight that indicate an increased risk of developing heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
- Cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis can refer to a condition caused by alcoholism or by fatty deposits on the liver.
Many people have gallstones and don’t know it. The gallbladder can function normally even if it contains gallstones. When gallstones block the bile duct, however, you can experience severe symptoms very quickly. Common symptoms of a gallbladder attack include:
- Severe pain in the upper-right quadrant of the abdomen, just below the ribcage, especially after a large or fat-heavy meal.
- Nausea and vomiting in conjunction with the pain described above.
- A low-grade or higher fever, or chills.
- Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eye. This is called jaundice and can occur within minutes or hours of the onset of a gallbladder attack. Jaundice constitutes a medical emergency, whether you experience it alone or in combination with other symptoms listed here.
- Tea-colored urine and/or light-colored stools.
If you experience more than three of the symptoms on this list, you should seek immediate medical attention. Left untreated, a blocked bile duct can cause serious health complications.
In an emergency situation, gallstones often are diagnosed with an ultrasound examination. This non-invasive test takes images of the gallbladder. Gallstones can easily be seen within these images. Blood tests that check liver enzyme levels also may aid in diagnosing gallstones.
Surgery represents the main treatment for symptomatic gallstones. Because the gallbladder is considered a “non-essential” organ, you can live just fine without it. Most gallbladder surgery today is performed laparoscopically. This procedure involves making three or four small incisions in the abdomen, including one in the navel (belly button). The surgeon inserts a camera and instruments through these small incisions, removes your gallbladder and closes the incisions with a few sutures. The medical term for this treatment is “laparoscopic cholecystectomy.” It often is performed on an outpatient basis, meaning you can go home the day of surgery.
Some non-surgical treatments for gallstones exist, but they are reserved for special cases in which the person is at high risk for surgical complications. For the vast majority of people, surgical removal of the gallbladder is the primary treatment for symptomatic gallstones.
It may not be possible to completely prevent gallstones from forming. You can decrease your risk of getting gallstones by taking a few steps, including:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Eating a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet
- Eating plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits for fiber
- Exercising regularly
Following these guidelines won’t guarantee you’ll never have a gallbladder attack, but they may help you avoid gallbladder surgery in your future.