Gallstones are a common and painful health problem. Unfortunately, many people live with this condition for a long time—sometimes months—before they seek treatment. Delaying treatment can lead to complications and even becoming seriously ill. Knowing the symptoms of gallstones is crucial, so you or a loved one can seek help right away if you suspect you have this condition…
10. What Are Gallstones & How Do They Form?
Before discussing the signs and symptoms of gallstones, it’s important to know a little bit about what they are and how they form. Now, the formation of gallstones all goes back to the liver. One of the major functions of your liver? To collect and break down wastes from your bloodstream. These wastes are turned into a greenish, oily fluid called bile, which is collected in your gallbladder.
The gallbladder collects bile and then sends it through ducts into the intestines. From there, the bile is excreted in your feces, which gives bowel movements their dark brown color. Bile also is important in digestion, helping to emulsify, or mix, fats in the intestines so they can be absorbed and used in the body.
How Gallstones Form
Gallstones occur when certain substances that are present in bile form hard stones. In most cases, these stones are very small and easily pass through the bile ducts. However, when the stones are large enough to get stuck or damage the walls of these ducts, they can cause excruciating pain and even a health emergency.
Of course, there are different types of gallstones, and different types of gallstones have different causes, symptoms, and treatments…
9. Types of Gallstones & Their Causes
Gallstones form when there are excessive amounts of certain substances in bile. The most common kind, comprising around 4/5 of all gallstones, are made of cholesterol. Naturally, cholesterol stones are common in people who have high cholesterol levels. After all, having excessive cholesterol increases the chance that you will have a high enough concentration in bile for stones to form.
The second most common kind of gallstones are called pigment stones. These stones are made of bilirubin, a yellowish waste substance that the liver cleans from the bloodstream. They are more common in people with liver diseases that prevent bile from being efficiently excreted. In this case, bile can become concentrated and increase the risk of stones.
Pigment stones are also common in people who have certain blood disorders that increase the rate of red blood cell destruction. Because bilirubin is a waste product from red blood cell turnover, people with these diseases will have higher levels of the substance, thus an increased risk of stones.
Now, there are some common signs of gallstones, no matter the type…
8. Pain: A Common Gallstone Symptom
Unfortunately, gallstones often have no symptoms when they are in the gallbladder. Instead, they often begin to cause symptoms when they move to the opening of the gallbladder and the bile ducts. Once in these areas of the liver, they can obstruct, or block, bile from leaving the liver. This leads to a back-up of bile as well as pain and potentially inflammation. So, pain is one of the telltale signs of gallstones.
The pain won’t occur just anywhere, though. Instead, pain from gallstones is usually located in the upper right abdomen, often radiating to the shoulder or back. Sometimes, the pain may be in the center of the abdomen. Often, this pain worsens from eating fatty foods or drinking alcohol.
However, these locations are common pain points for plenty of other conditions. How can you tell if this pain is caused by gallbladder issues or something else?…
7. Pain from Gallstones or Something Else?
So, just what are some good signs that your abdominal pain is gallstone-related? Common indicators of gallstone pain includes:
- Pain that is persistent and/or worsening
- Pain occurring hours after a fatty meal (not immediately after)
- Pain persisting after bowel movements and gas
- Pain persisting after movement
- Pain lingering even after taking over-the-counter pain-relieving medicines
When your pain fits these bullet points, it might be a good sign that something is wrong with the gallbladder.
Pain, however, is not the only symptom of these stones…
6. Other Common Gallstone Symptoms
Other common signs and symptoms of gallstones include:
- Fever and chills
- Jaundice, in which your skin or the whites of your eyes turn yellow
- Dark or brown-tinged urine
- Sudden weight loss or weight gain
- Light, clay-colored bowel movements
- Fatigue, or a feeling of being generally unwell
- Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas
- Persistent nausea, vomiting, or indigestion
So, why do gallstones cause these symptoms?…
5. Why Gallstones Create These Symptoms
So, how do gallstones create these specific issues? Let’s break down a few:
- Jaundice & Differently Colored Stool: Blocking of certain bile ducts increases bilirubin, which is yellowish in color. This increase can lead to the changes seen with jaundice and stool.
- Weight loss: Not necessarily caused by gallstones. Sudden weight loss, such as from gastric bypass or unhealthy fad diets, seems to put people at risk.
- Weight gain: More of a sign associated with—not caused by—gallstones. Overweight and obese individuals tend to have higher levels of cholesterol, which increases their chances of cholesterol stones.
- Pancreatitis & Fever: The pancreas and liver are neighbors. So, their excrement ducts are close together, meaning a blockage in one can affect the other, leading to inflammation. Fever is a common symptom of pancreatitis.
It’s incredibly important to catch these symptoms and catch them early. Otherwise, untreated gallstones can lead to some serious health complications…
4. What Happens When You Don’t Treat Gallstones?
Although gallstones are often silent, they can lead to a health crisis when they cause obstruction, which can lead to inflammation. When obstruction happens, the liver is left unable to perform its essential functions of cleaning the blood and excreting toxic substances. Obstruction might further lead to a build-up of pus, which could kill the gallbladder. In addition, the inflammation can lead to an infection in the liver. In rare cases, this infection can enter the bloodstream and cause sepsis.
Clearly, gallstones and their complications are no joke. The best way to treat them? Prevent them from happening in the first place. Now, the best way to prevent them from happening is firstly to identify risk factors…
3. Who Is at Risk?
Anyone can develop gallstones. There are, however, a few risk factors that increase your chances of developing them:
1.First, family history is an important risk factor. If your parents or siblings have had gallstones, you are more likely to develop them yourself.
2. Second, if you have existing liver or gallbladder disease, you have a higher risk. People with these disorders cannot empty their gallbladders as effectively as others, leading to concentrated bile that is more likely to develop stones. The same is true if you have a blood disease that causes higher turnover of red blood cells and thus higher bilirubin.
3. Being overweight is a risk factor because overweight people tend to have higher cholesterol levels.
4. Eating a high-fat diet also increases risk because introducing lots of unhealthy fats to the body can increase cholesterol levels.
5. Pregnant women have a higher risk of developing gallstones because the extra estrogen in their bodies slows the emptying of the gallbladder. The same is true for women who take birth control pills that contain estrogen.
If you are having symptoms of gallstones and also have these risk factors, you should get immediate medical help. Depending on the severity of the situation, your treatment can vary…
2. Identifying & Treating Gallstones
If you suspect a gallstone, your doctor will first perform blood work. Many people with this health disorder will have increased white blood cells and high blood levels of certain liver enzymes.
There are also certain types of imaging that can be helpful in diagnosing gallstones. Ultrasound is generally considered the best modality, although a CT scan or MRI can often show gallstones.
So, how are gallstones treated?
A procedure, ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography), can treat gallstones without the need for a major surgery. In this procedure, the doctor will sedate the patient and then put a small tube with a camera down their throat and into the intestines. They can then look directly into the bile duct. Dye is injected into the bile duct and x-rays taken immediately to identify any blockage. Now, doctors can often remove smaller gallstones by using a small hook threaded through the tube during this procedure.
Alternately, doctors can perform an MRCP (magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography),which is similar to ERCP. However, MRCP uses MRI instead of x-ray for imaging. Notably, MRCP can identify, but not treat, this condition.
Medications are also an option. Ursodiol, or ursodeoxycholic acid, can decrease liver-produced cholesterol and even break down small cholesterol stones. This option may also help prevent gallstones for certain patients.
If gallstones cannot be removed through less invasive methods, intense surgery may be necessary. In laparoscopic gallbladder surgery, the doctor will remove all stones as well as the gallbladder. This ensures that stones will not form again in the future.
1. Final Thoughts
If you suspect that you have symptoms of gallstones, make an appointment with your doctor. They can initiate the testing that will allow you to get a diagnosis. Ultimately, getting prompt professional treatment is the only surefire way to make your pain and other uncomfortable symptoms go away.