What are gallstones?

Gallstones form when your digestive fluids harden. These fluids make small, rigid rock-type pieces in an organ called your gallbladder. This organ stores bile fluid from your liver and sends it to your intestines. Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand and as big as a golf ball. Some people develop many at once or just one at a time. Sometimes you can't feel gallstones. Other times they can be extremely painful and often require surgery. Some stones are made up of cholesterol, and others, known as pigment stones, are made up of bile.

Causes of gallstones

Several different things can cause gallstones. Your diet can cause them, especially if it's high in cholesterol. When your digestive fluids have extra cholesterol that your body isn't removing, gallstones can form. Your gallbladder might also have problems emptying itself. This can result in gallstones forming, too.

Risk factors for gallstones

There are different potential risk factors associated with gallstones. Some are unavoidable, like being female, Native American or Mexican-American, or older than 60 years old. Some have to do with your lifestyle. If you're obese, have had rapid weight loss in a short period of time or have diabetes, you're at greater risk for getting gallstones. Other risks include pregnancy, having liver cirrhosis or taking medications like birth control pills.  If someone in your family has them, you might be more likely to get gallstones.

Symptoms of gallstones

Gallstones themselves don't cause pain. They start to hurt when they block a duct in your gallbladder. Blocking your gallbladder's processes can result in sharp, sudden pain in the upper-right portion of your abdomen.

Other symptoms of gallstones include:

  • Sudden pain in the center of your stomach below your breastbone
  • Back pain between your shoulders
  • Pain in your right shoulder
  • Nausea or vomiting

Diagnosis of gallstones

If you have any of the symptoms, see your doctor right away. The first thing your doctor will likely do is order blood tests. These help them look for infections or other conditions that might be causing your pain. You may also have a procedure called an ultrasound. That's a non-invasive way for your doctor to look at the organs inside your body. A CT scan is also a method for your doctor to see your gallbladder. Another test uses pulses of radio waves to take pictures of your liver and organs. Finally, your doctor may order a test in which they inject harmless radioactive material into you. You then go into a machine where the doctor can watch how your organs are working.

Treatments for gallstones

Many people who have gallstones need surgery to remove their gallbladders. There are two types of surgery. The first is open surgery. A surgeon cuts into your abdomen to remove your gallbladder. The second is laparoscopic surgery. The surgeon makes a few smaller cuts to remove the organ using much smaller tools and a camera. If you have a condition that makes surgery a problem, your doctor can try other methods of treatment. These may include:

  • Medications that can dissolve cholesterol stones, which may take a year or longer to work
  • Lifestyle changes like maintaining a healthy weight, eating an anti-inflammatory diet and exercising regularly

Increasing the amount of fiber in your diet and avoiding foods that are high in fat can help reduce your risk of gallstones. It's also a good idea to eat several small meals a day instead of three larger ones. Drink plenty of water. If you're planning to lose weight, do so slowly. Rapid weight loss may increase your risk of gallstones.

Recovery from gallstones

If your doctor orders surgery to treat your gallstones, your recovery depends on the type of surgery you have. Open surgery takes longer to heal from than laparoscopic surgery. It's more common to have the surgery smaller cuts, though. You should be able to return to your normal activities in just a few weeks. If you don't have surgery, it's important to work closely with your doctor. They can help you create new, healthy habits to reduce your risk for getting gallstones in the future.

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