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What are gallstones?

Gallstones are small, hard deposits that form in the gallbladder, a small organ located beneath the liver. The gallbladder stores bile, a digestive fluid produced by the liver and released into the small intestine to help break down fats. Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball, and they can consist of various substances, including cholesterol, bilirubin, and calcium salts.

What causes gallstones?

  • Excess cholesterol in the bile: If the liver produces too much cholesterol or the bile cannot dissolve the cholesterol properly, it can form gallstones.
  • Obesity: People who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop gallstones.
  • Gender: Women are more likely than men to develop gallstones, possibly due to the hormonal changes associated with pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy, or the use of birth control pills.
  • Age: Gallstones are more common in older adults, particularly those over 60.
  • Family history: If other members of your family have had gallstones, you may be more likely to develop them as well.
  • Certain medical conditions: Certain conditions that affect the liver or gallbladder, such as cirrhosis or sickle cell anemia, can increase the risk of gallstones.
  • Rapid weight loss: Losing weight too quickly can increase the risk of developing gallstones.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: Lack of physical activity can increase the risk of developing gallstones.

What are symptoms of gallstones?

Many people with gallstones do not experience symptoms and may not even be aware they have them. However, when gallstones block the bile ducts or gallbladder, they can cause the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain: The most common symptom of gallstones is sudden, intense pain in the upper right of the abdomen, lasting from several minutes to several hours. The pain may also radiate to the back or between the shoulder blades.
  • Nausea and vomiting: If gallstones cause inflammation or infection in the gallbladder, it can lead to nausea and vomiting.
  • Jaundice: When a gallstone blocks the bile ducts, it can cause a buildup of bilirubin, a waste product that gives the skin and whites of the eyes a yellowish tint.
  • Clay-colored stools and dark urine: The presence of excess bilirubin in the body can also cause stools to become pale or clay-colored and urine to become dark.
  • Fever and chills: If gallstones cause an infection, it can lead to a fever and chills.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, especially severe abdominal pain, schedule an appointment with a primary care provider today.

How are gallstones diagnosed?

Common methods used to diagnose gallstones include:
  • Ultrasound: This non-invasive imaging test uses sound waves to create images of the gallbladder and surrounding organs. It can show the presence of gallstones and any inflammation or swelling in the area.
  • CT scan: A computed tomography (CT) scan uses X-rays and computer technology to create detailed images of the internal organs, including the gallbladder and bile ducts.
  • MRI: A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan uses powerful magnets and radio waves to produce images of the internal organs, including the gallbladder and bile ducts.
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): This procedure uses an endoscope (a thin, flexible tube with a camera and light on the end) to examine the bile ducts and inject dye into them, which can help detect any blockages or abnormalities.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests can detect signs of inflammation or infection in the body, indicating gallbladder disease.

What do gallstones look like?

Gallstones can vary in size, shape, and color, depending on the composition of the stone. Here are some common types of gallstones and their characteristics:

  • Cholesterol gallstones are the most common type of gallstone, usually yellow-green or pale in color. They are made of hardened cholesterol and are often round or oval-shaped.
  • Pigment gallstones consist of bilirubin, a waste product from the breakdown of red blood cells. They are usually dark brown or black and may be small, round, or irregularly shaped.
  • Mixed gallstones are a combination of cholesterol and bilirubin, and they may have a variety of shapes and colors.

How to get rid of gallstones

  • Observation: If gallstones are not causing any symptoms, they may not require treatment, and your doctor may recommend monitoring them over time.
  • Medications: Some medications can help dissolve gallstones over time, although this method is not always effective and may take several months to work.
  • Surgery: If gallstones cause severe symptoms or complications, surgery may be necessary to remove the gallbladder. A surgeon will perform this procedure—called a cholecystectomy—laparoscopically, using small incisions and a camera to guide the surgery.
  • Endoscopic removal: In some cases, gallstones can be removed from the bile ducts using an endoscope, a flexible tube with a camera and tools on the end.
  • Shock wave lithotripsy: This non-invasive procedure uses shock waves to break up gallstones, which can then be passed out of the body in the stool.

Some alternative or natural remedies, like drinking apple cider vinegar or taking certain herbs or supplements, have not been proven to treat gallstones effectively and may even be harmful. Always consult your primary care provider before trying any new treatment or supplement.

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