Would You Know If You Had Gallstones?

| Posted On Jun 08, 2017 | By:

Have you ever had a gallstone? Many people haven’t even heard of them, but they are actually quite common. Although they sometimes occur and pass without a person experiencing any symptoms at all, they can cause pain, discomfort and even complications, so it’s good to know what they are and symptoms you may experience.

First of all, it’s good to have some basic definitions. Gallstones are hardened deposits or “stones” of digestive fluid – also known as bile – that can form in your gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small organ located on the right side of your body that stores bile, which is produced by the liver. After you eat, the gallbladder goes to work, releasing bile into the small intestine to help with digestion. The more fat in your meal, the harder the gallbladder works to aid in digestion. When one of the substances that make up the bile (cholesterol or bilirubin, a waste product created when your body breaks down red blood cells) becomes too concentrated, it can form a gallstone. These hard stones – and you can develop just one or several at the same time – can be as small as a grain of sand or be as large as a golf ball.

Symptoms

Gallstones may cause no symptoms at all, or may cause symptoms intermittently depending on the foods you eat. Large fatty meals (such as a holiday dinner) are notorious for causing gallstone symptoms. If a gallstone gets stuck and causes blockage of the flow of bile, the gallbladder becomes inflamed and you may experience the following symptoms:

The pain may last several minutes to a few hours, subside and then possibly reoccur. If the blockage from gallstones does not resolve, this can progress to an acute gallbladder attack known as cholecystitis. Cholecystitis causes the progression of the above symptoms, and generally requires urgent surgical intervention.

Causes and Types

We are not completely certain what causes gallstones to form, but they are often a result of excess cholesterol or bilirubin in your bile or if your gallbladder doesn’t empty completely or often enough and bile becomes very concentrated.

Gallstones are categorized into two main types. Cholesterol gallstones, the most common type, appear yellow in color and are composed mainly of undissolved cholesterol, although they may contain other components. Pigment gallstones caused by bilirubin are typically black or brown in color.

Risk Factors

Given we don’t fully know what causes gallstones to develop; it’s hard to pinpoint specific factors. Gallstones do seem to have a genetic link, occurring more frequently in those with a family history. They are also more common in women than in men, in people over the age of 40, and in those of either Native-American or Mexican heritage. Beyond that, factors which may increase your risk of gallstones include:

When to see your healthcare provider

If you have any of the symptoms above, it’s a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider. In particular, if you have abdominal pain so intense that you can’t find a comfortable position, notice a yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes, or have high fever with chills, you should contact your primary care clinician immediately, as these may be signs of a serious gallstone complication, such as cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder), a blockage of either the common bile duct or the pancreatic duct, pancreatitis, or even cancer.

Your clinician may perform special imaging tests to diagnose the presence of gallstones and, based on those results and your symptoms, determine what treatment options make sense for you. For people with gallstones that have not caused symptoms, they probably will never need treatment. If you experience frequent episodes of gallstones, your clinician may recommend surgery to remove your gallbladder. Once the gallbladder is removed, bile flows directly from your liver into your small intestine, rather than being stored in your gallbladder. This removal doesn’t usually affect your ability to digest food. Some patients do experience diarrhea from fatty meals after gallbladder removal until their body adjusts. There are medications that can help this “post-cholecystecomy diarrhea.”  There are also medications to dissolve gallstones, but they are not commonly used and are reserved for people who can’t undergo surgery as these medications can take months or years of treatment to be effective, and the gallstones can form again if treatment is stopped.

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About Andrea Forde, NP

Andrea Forde, NP, is a board-certified Adult Nurse Practitioner and a primary care provider at Harvard Vanguard’s Watertown practice. Andrea received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She has been in clinical practice since 2005 and is currently welcoming new patients. If you would like to select Andrea as your PCP, please call our Central Registration team at 1-800-249-1767.

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