What Are Gallstones?
Gallstones are small, hard particles that develop in the gallbladder. They form as a result of the bile hardening and tend to block the common bile duct. In some cases they can cause severe symptoms including vomiting, pain in the abdomen or back pain, often requiring gallbladder surgery. For others, gallstones do not cause any discomfort at all.
There are two forms of gallstones: those formed by the hardening of cholesterol, which represent the vast majority of gallstone cases and those formed by the hardening of bilirubin. Cholesterol gallstones are usually lighter in color while bilirubin gallstones are darker.
Interestingly, there is no direct relationship between the size and quantity of gallstones and the symptoms that they cause. Some patients have large gallstones with no symptoms and others have small gallstones and severe pain. Generally, symptoms include:
- Significant recurrence of indigestion
- Infection of the gallbladder
- Serious nausea or vomiting attributed to gallbladder stones
- and significant abdominal pain
Causes of Gallstones
The bottom line is that there is no guarantee that you can avoid gallstones, since they become more common as we age. In fact, the single greatest risk factor for gallstones is advanced age – those over the age of 40 are most susceptible. Further, women are more susceptible to gallstones than men. This may be a cause of extra estrogen in the body from pregnancy, birth control pills or hormone replacement.
Specific ethnic and racial populations also have a higher risk of developing gallstones. American Indians and Mexican Americans both have a higher rate of gallstones than the general population of the United States
Other conditions can also contribute to gallstones, the most common of which is excess weight and obesity. Extreme weight loss and diets high in calories and refined carbs can contribute to the problem.
Diagnosis of Gallstones
The diagnosis of gallstones is relatively straightforward, especially if the gallstones are symptomatic – i.e. giving the patient serious discomfort. The signs of gallstones are very clear and pronounced. They usually occur shortly after a meal that contains a significant amount of fat. Your doctor will discuss your medical history as well as the symptoms you are feeling. If there is any doubt as to the source of the problem, an ultrasound may be ordered to show the gallstones in the gallbladder.
However, not all cases of gallstones are symptomatic and patients may not always complain of pain. As such, many patients find out they have gallstones as a result of testing for other conditions. Ultrasonography (ultrasound) is the most common way to see gallstones. CT scans and MRIs can also be used to visualize gallstones.
Generally, if a patient has asymptomatic gallstones, no treatment is necessary and the gallstones will be monitored.