Your gallbladder is a small organ located in your upper right abdomen, right below your liver. It’s a pouch that stores bile, a green-yellow liquid that helps with digestion. Issues with your gallbladder typically occur when something is blocking its bile duct — like a gallstone.
Most gallstones are created when substances that are found in bile, like cholesterol, harden.
Gallstones are very common and routinely asymptomatic. However, about 10 percentTrusted Source of people who are diagnosed with gallstones will develop noticeable symptoms within 5 years.
Gallstones can lead to pain in the upper right abdomen or the center of your stomach. You may experience gallbladder pain from time to time after you eat foods that are high in fat, such as fried foods, but the pain can occur at almost any time.
Pain caused by gallstone issues usually lasts for only a few hours, but it can feel severe.
If gallstones are left untreated or unidentified, the symptoms may increase to include:
These symptoms can be signs of a gallbladder infection, or inflammation of the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas.
Because gallstone symptoms may mimic the symptoms of other serious issues like appendicitis and pancreatitis, no matter what, if you’re dealing with one or more of these issues — it’s time to see a doctor or get yourself to the ER.
Gallstones themselves don’t cause pain. Rather, pain occurs when gallstones block the movement of bile from the gallbladder.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, about 80 percent of people who have gallstones have “silent gallstones.” This means they don’t experience pain or have symptoms. In these cases, your doctor may discover the gallstones from X-rays or during abdominal surgery.
The actual cause of gallstones is thought to be due to a chemical imbalance of bile inside of the gallbladder. While researchers still aren’t clear about what exactly causes that imbalance to happen, there are a few possible reasons:
Having too much cholesterol in your bile can lead to yellow cholesterol stones. These hard stones may develop if your liver makes more cholesterol than your bile can dissolve.
Bilirubin is a chemical produced during the normal breakdown of red blood cells. After it’s created, it passes through the liver and is eventually excreted out of the body.
Some conditions, such as liver damage and certain blood disorders, cause your liver to produce more bilirubin than it should. Pigment gallstones form when your gallbladder can’t break down the excess bilirubin. These hard stones are often dark brown or black.
Your gallbladder needs to be able to empty its bile to function properly. If it fails to empty its bile content, the bile becomes overly concentrated, which can cause stones to form.
Most of the time, you won’t need treatment for gallstones unless they cause you pain. Sometimes you can pass gallstones without even noticing. If you’re in pain, your doctor will likely recommend surgery. In rare cases, medication may be used.
If you’re at high risk for surgery complications, there are a few nonsurgical ways to attempt to treat gallstones. However, if surgery isn’t performed, your gallstones may come back — even with additional treatment. This means you may need to keep an eye on your condition for the majority of your life.
Cholecystectomy, which is surgery to remove the gallbladder, is one of the most common operationsTrusted Source performed on adults in the United States. Because the gallbladder isn’t an essential organ, it’s possible to live a healthy life without it.
There are two types of cholecystectomy:
You may experience loose or watery stools after gallbladder removal. Removing a gallbladder involves rerouting the bile from the liver to the small intestine. Bile no longer goes through the gallbladder and it becomes less concentrated. The immediate result is a laxative effect that can cause diarrhea, but this issue should resolve on its own for most people.
If surgery can’t be performed, such as if the patient is a much older individual, there are a few other ways doctors can try to get rid of your gallstones.
Some risk factors for gallstones are related to diet, while other factors are not as controllable. Uncontrollable risk factors are things like age, race, sex, and family history.
While some medications may increase your risk of gallstones, don’t stop taking them unless you have discussed it with your doctor and have their approval.
Your doctor will perform a physical examination that includes checking your eyes and skin for visible changes in color. A yellowish tint may be a sign of jaundice, the result of too much bilirubin in your body.
The exam may involve using diagnostic tests that help your doctor see inside your body. These tests include:
To help improve your condition and reduce your risk of gallstones, try these tips:
If you plan to lose weight, do it slowly. Rapid weight loss may increase your risk of gallstones and other health problems.
Recovery time varies depending on the procedure, type of anesthesia, general health, age, and other factors. You will most likely be required to wear a sling for several weeks after surgery. Your doctor will recommend an exercise rehabilitation program to help you recover. Full recovery takes a few weeks to several months.
Pain control is important for complete healing and a smooth recovery. Your doctor will plan your pain management with medications and you may seek assistance if it causes discomfort or it’s not helping.
While there is no foolproof way to completely prevent gallstones, cholesterol seems to play a major role in their formation. If you have a family history of gallstones, your doctor may advise you to limit foods with a high saturated fat content. Some of these foods include:
Because people living with obesity are more predisposed to gallstones, keeping your weight within a moderate range is another way to limit the possibility of their formation.
If your doctor has diagnosed you with gallstones and decides you need surgery to remove them or your gallbladder, the outlook is often positive. In most cases of stone removal, stones don’t return.
If you aren’t able to have surgery and decide to take medication to dissolve the stones, the gallstones can return, so you and your doctor will need to monitor your progress.
If your gallstones aren’t causing symptoms, you will most likely not need to do anything. Still, you may want to make lifestyle changes to prevent them from getting bigger and causing problems.