Gallstones are small, pebble-like substances that develop in the gallbladder, the small sac just below the liver in the right upper abdomen.
Gallstones form when bile stored in the gallbladder hardens. Bile helps the body digest fats and is made in the liver, but is stored in the gallbladder until the body needs it.
The two types of gallstones are cholesterol stones and pigment stones. Cholesterol stones are made primarily of hardened cholesterol and account for about 80 percent of gallstones. Pigment stones are made of bilirubin.
The gallbladder can develop one large stone, hundreds of tiny stones, or a combination of the two.
Warning Signs & Symptoms
Symptoms vary from no sign of trouble at all (silent stones) to a sudden gallbladder attack. Typically experienced after a fatty meal, pressure increases in the gallbladder as the gallstones move into the bile ducts and create blockage.
Symptoms include pain in the right shoulder, pain in the back between the shoulder blades and a steady pain in the right upper abdomen that increases rapidly and can last as long as several hours. More serious symptoms may require immediate attention, including pain that lasts longer than five hours, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, jaundice or clay-colored stools.
Gallstones without symptoms require no treatment at all. For more painful gallstones, there are several surgical and non-surgical treatments. The non-surgical treatment is only for people who can’t undergo surgery, and it is only for cholesterol stones. The doctor will advise you if this is the appropriate course for you.
If you are having frequent gallbladder attacks, your doctor may recommend that the gallbladder be removed. This procedure is called a cholecystectomy.
Maintaining a healthy, stable diet and exercise routine is the best defense in preventing gallstones. Many people with gallstones live a sedentary lifestyle and eat a diet high in fat and cholesterol. Avoid refined sugars and complex carbohydrates, or starchy foods, and eat plenty of fiber. Drink alcohol and coffee only in moderation.
Most patients who undergo a laparoscopic cholecystectomy do very well and recover quickly. Generally, most patients return to normal daily activities in less than a week. Patients should follow the instructions of their doctor.