What are Gallstones?
The gallbladder is a small organ located on the right side of the abdomen, under the liver that stores digestive fluid known as bile. Gallstones are hard deposits of digestive fluid that can form in the gallbladder or bile ducts. These stones can range in size from very small to the size of a golf ball.
Gallstones are generally categorized into the following groups:
Cholesterol gallstones: These are the most common form of gallstone and appear yellow in coloring. They are made up of undissolved cholesterol, but may also contain other materials.
Pigment gallstones: These are dark brown or black gallstones that form when your bile contains too much bilirubin.
Some individuals may not experience any gallstone symptoms, while others may experience the following:
- Pain in the upper abdomen.
- Associated pain under the right shoulder or between the shoulder blades.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Dark urine.
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice).
There are many different reasons why gallstones develop. Sometimes, they are caused when the gallbladder does not completely empty itself of bile, or there is a high concentration of cholesterol or bilirubin in the bile. Other times, they are the result of cirrhosis of the liver, certain blood disorders, pregnancy or rapid weight loss. Certain individuals may also be at a higher risk for developing gallstones, including females, those who are 60 years or older or those who have a family history of gallstones.
How are Gallstones Diagnosed?
If you are experiencing symptoms associated with gallstones, your doctor will perform a physical exam to look for jaundice. He or she may also recommend diagnostic tests such as ultrasound, an abdominal CT scan, a gallbladder radionuclide scan, an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) or blood tests to make a proper diagnosis. If gallstones are detected, your doctor will then create a plan of action that is best for your situation to help treat your symptoms.
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Gallstone Treatment Options
Gallstones that are not causing any symptoms do not require treatment; however, if you are experiencing painful symptoms, treatment will be necessary. The most common treatment is to surgically remove the gallbladder. This procedure can often be done laparoscopically through small incisions and as an outpatient procedure. Once the gallbladder is removed, your bile will flow from the liver directly into the small intestine rather than being stored in the gallbladder. While you do not need a gallbladder to live, your body may take longer to adjust to digesting fat following this procedure.
In some cases, medications to dissolve gallstones may be an option. However, it may take months to years of this treatment, and the gallstones can reform if treatment is stopped.
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