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Gallstones, also known as choleliths, are hardened, pockets of solidified digestive fluid that can form inside the gallbladder, an organ located in the right side of your abdomen, right below the liver. They can be as small as a single grain of sand, or so large they’re golf-ball-sized. (The world’s largest recorded gallbladder stone was the size of a bowling ball!)
About 90% of the time, gallstones cause no symptoms. But when they do, they can cause the gallbladder to become inflamed or create blockage in a duct, and the effects can be so severe that they must be surgically removed. Symptoms include a pain in the upper right or center of your abdomen beneath your breastbone that seems to strike out of nowhere and rapidly worsens, or an ache that occurs even higher, in your right shoulder or your upper back between your shoulder blades. These attacks may last anywhere from just a few minutes to several hours before fading again. Gallstones may also cause infections that are dangerous or life threatening.
Basic gallstone statistics and trends
About 12% of Americans—30 million in all—have gallstones. More than 750,000 gallstone-removal treatments are performed in the U.S. annually, at a cost of $8 to $10 billion dollars. Gallstones are thought to stem from a combination of genetics and environmental causes, though scientists aren’t exactly sure. Certain factors can increase your likelihood of developing gallstones:
Main types of gallstones
Most gallstones fall into one of two categories:
Doctors and researchers aren’t exactly sure why some people develop gallstones. But they think gallstones may result from these problems:
Several factors can influence the risk of developing gallstones, including:
Physicians use one or more of the following procedures and tests to determine if someone has gallstones:
Gallstones don’t always cause symptoms, but can cause discomfort if they form a blockage within a duct. Symptoms include:
After your gallstones are removed, you may need to follow a liquid diet for a period of time, so your gallbladder can rest and heal. Fortunately, almost all people who have gallstones surgically removed do not suffer a recurrence, and the chance of post-surgical complications is very low. Of these rare complications, the most frequent are infections of the gallbladder or pancreas, or of the tube that carries bile from the liver to the gallbladder and intestines.
If you wish to avoid surgery and testing shows that your gallstones are relatively small, there is a nonsurgical option to explore: With your doctor’s permission, you can take ursodiol, an acid that occurs naturally in the bile and which helps to dissolve cholesterol. Its drawbacks are that it is slow acting—it may take as long as two years to work—and that it is effective only on gallstones that are composed of cholesterol.
Physicians generally do not screen healthy patients for the possibility of gallstones. But if your doctor recognizes several symptoms of gallstones, he or she will most likely conduct diagnostic tests to determine whether or not you have them.
While there are no ways to guarantee against getting gallstones, these steps will reduce your chances of developing them:
Surgical treatment for gallstones: When gallstones are painful or causing blockages, doctors will most commonly recommend surgically removing the gallbladder, a procedure called cholecystectomy. Fortunately, the gallbladder is not an essential organ. After it’s removed, bile—the digestive fluid that’s produced by the liver and then stored in the gallbladder—simply flows directly into the small intestine. People who’ve had their gallbladder removed typically continue to digest food as before, although they may temporarily suffer from bouts of diarrhea.
While there is an alternative treatment for gallstones, a procedure called a gallbladder cleanse (or a gallbladder flush or liver flush), it is not scientifically endorsed. Generally, a gallbladder cleanse consists of drinking or eating olive oil, fruit juice, and herbs for two or more days (often to the exclusion of all other foods). Research has shown no proof that gallbladder cleanses break up gallstones, however, and they may have side effects, including nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. The herbs used may have unwelcome or hazardous side effects as well.
If you think you may have gallstones, or are experiencing any of the symptoms of gallstones, schedule an appointment with your physician. He or she will be able to conduct or order tests to determine if gallstones are the cause of your discomfort. Seek immediate care for any of these symptoms, which could indicate you’re at risk of severe complications from gallstones:
If you suspect you have gallstones, make an appointment with your primary care physician, or a general practitioner. If her examination suggests you are suffering from gallstones, she may refer you to a gastroenterologist—a physician specializing in problems with the digestive system. You may also be referred to an abdominal surgeon. If you need to find a gastroenterologist on your own, visit the “Find a Gastroenterologist” page on the website of the American College of Gastroenterology.
To find out if a gastroenterologist you are considering is board certified, visit the “Is Your Doctor Board Certified” of the American Board of Medical Specialties.
If you think you may be suffering from gallstones, make an appointment to see your physician. You will probably find it helpful to ask the following questions:
For more information on gallstones, visit:
For updates on gallstone research, visit:
To learn about ongoing and upcoming clinical trials at safe and effective ways to prevent, diagnose, or treat gallstones, visit:
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