Doc Talk: Learn the symptoms of gallstones

03/26/2013 8:59 AM

08/08/2014 10:15 AM

About 10 to 15 percent of adults in the U.S. experience difficulty with gallstones. It is one of the most common gastrointestinal illnesses that lead to hospitalization in the U.S.

What are gallstones?

They are solid material that can form within the gallbladder. They are most commonly made of cholesterol, which accounts for 80 to 90 percent of stones. The rest are made of pigments.

So what is the gallbladder?

The gallbladder is a structure located just under the liver on the right upper side of the abdomen. Its function is to release bile for the digestion of fatty foods and to help absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Between meals, the gallbladder is relaxed, and bile flows from the liver into it for storage. During a meal, the gallbladder squeezes bile into the small intestine to aid in digestion.

What are the symptoms of gallstones?

Eight percent of people who have gallstones don’t have symptoms. The stones may be found incidentally on an ultrasound or CT scan. However, those who have symptoms tend to experience abdominal pain episodes occurring in the right upper abdomen just below the ribs. This typically occurs soon after a fatty meal and may last a couple of hours. People also may experience nausea, vomiting and pain in the right shoulder or back. There are potentially serious complications of gallstones. The gallbladder may become completely obstructed, or the tube in which bile exits can be obstructed by a stone. These are medical emergencies and frequently require hospitalization.

How are gallstones diagnosed?

The best test is an ultrasound to identify the stones. This test is similar to a prenatal ultrasound. Other tests such as a CT scan also can find them.

Who gets gallstones?

They are more common in women and more common during pregnancy. Obesity, taking medications with estrogen, rapid weight loss and diabetes also are risk factors. Risk increases with age, especially after 40. People with family members who have had gallstones can be more likely to get them.

How are gallstones treated?

Treatment depends on the size and type of stone. A medication called Ursodiol can sometimes be used to dissolve cholesterol stones. Of the people who are started on this medication, about two-thirds can become symptom-free after a few months. However, if someone is having recurrent abdominal pain from gallstones, this treatment is not recommended. Even after treatment with the medication, the stones may return.

Surgery to remove the gallbladder is sometimes necessary. It often is done laparoscopically, and most patients recover quickly. Some patients will have difficulty with loose stools and bloating, but this tends to resolve with time.

Contact your doctor for more information.

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