What Are Gallstones?
Gallstones are hardened deposits of digested fluid known as bile. These deposits form in the gallbladder, a small organ located beneath the liver. The gallbladder stores bile produced by the liver and then releases it into the small intestine as needed.
Gallstones may range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball and they can be broken down into two types:
- Cholesterol gallstones: One of the most common types of gallstones, this type is generally yellow in color and is mostly made up of un-dissolved cholesterol
- Pigment gallstones: Pigment gallstones appear black or dark brown in color and form when there’s an excess of bilirubin in the bile. Bilirubin is a byproduct following the body’s breakdown of red blood cells
Risk Factors for Gallstones
Risk factors for developing gallstones may include:
- Age (over 60)
- Diet (low-fiber, high fat or high cholesterol)
- Ethnicity (American Indian or Mexican-American)
- Family history of gallstones
- Gender (female)
- Medications that contain estrogen (e.g. hormone therapy drugs)
- Rapid weight loss
Symptoms of Gallstones
While most gallstones are asymptomatic, symptoms can include nausea, fever, jaundice and dark urine.
Typically, however, symptoms only present when gallstones cause a blockage in a bile duct. When a blockage occurs, symptoms may include:
- Pain between the shoulder blades
- Pain in the right shoulder
- Sudden, intense pain in the upper right section of the abdomen or just below the breastbone
The pain may last anywhere from several minutes to several hours.
Treatment Options for Gallstones
As previously stated, gallstones typically do not show any signs or symptoms. They are usually only revealed in an ultrasound or CT for an unrelated condition. Therefore, they often do not require treatment.
However, gallstones that do cause symptoms may be treated in the following ways:
- Surgery: Known as a cholecystectomy, surgery to remove the gallbladder may be recommended if gallstones frequently reoccur. Patients can live without complication void of their gallbladder and have no issue with digestion
- Medication: There are certain medications that may be taken orally to aid in dissolving the gallstones but are typically reserved for patients who are unable to have surgery