Gallstones (also called cholelithiasis ) form when there is an imbalance in the bile, resulting in hard stones made up of crystallized cholesterol, pigment, or a mixture of both. Gallstones can range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball. You may have one large gallstone, tens to hundreds of small gallstones, or a combination of large and small stones.
Gallstones are quite common, affecting about 25 million people in the United States.
There are two types of gallstones:
- Cholesterol stones: Cholesterol stones are the result of too much cholesterol or bilirubin in the bile and not enough bile salts. Cholesterol stones can also form when the gallbladder does not empty during the digestion process. Yellow-green gallstones are usually the most common type.
- Pigmented stones: People who develop pigmented stones are usually people with cirrhosis of the liver, biliary tract infections, and inherited blood disorders, including sickle cell anemia. All of these conditions cause too much bilirubin, which is what stones are. made of. Pigmented stones are usually dark brown or black in color.
Symptoms of gallstone disease
Symptoms are not always present, so anyone can have gallstones without realizing it. In fact, most people with gallstones have no symptoms .
However, when gallstones enter the bile ducts and block them, a sudden sharp pain is felt in the upper right corner or in the center of the abdomen. The pain that can occur with such a blockage is often called gallbladder colic or gallbladder attack. This pain, which is usually severe, can last from a few minutes to several hours .
The biliary tract is the pathway between the liver and the pancreas to the first part of the small intestine. The gallbladder, part of this tract, is a small, pear-shaped organ found under the liver in the upper right part of the body between the chest and thighs. It acts as a reservoir for bile , a fluid made by the liver to help the body digest fat.
Bile helps your body digest fat and fat-soluble vitamins. After eating fat, the gallbladder contracts, pushing accumulated bile into the common bile duct, which carries fluid to the small intestine to aid digestion.
The bile stored in the gallbladder contains water, bile salts, cholesterol, fats, proteins, and bilirubin . Bile salts break down the fats that are consumed in the food we eat. Bilirubin gives bile a yellowish-green color and stools a brownish color.
Gallstones can form in the gallbladder when bile hardens into a stone-like material, which can occur if it contains too much bile salts, cholesterol, or bilirubin.
This can happen for a number of reasons . Obesity and a diet high in refined carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta and fats, as well as low calorie diets and rapid weight loss are associated with gallstones. Also , the likelihood of gallstones developing increases with age. and women are more likely to have gallstones than men due to hormonal factors.
Your healthcare provider can perform a series of tests to diagnose gallstones . Blood can be drawn to check for infection or inflammation, but not gallstones. For this, imaging tests are used, ultrasound being the preferred method; Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) may also be done.
Treatment for gallstones is only recommended if there are symptoms. If present, especially in severe pain, surgical removal of the gallbladder (laparoscopic cholecystectomy) is the most common option .
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In some cases, non-surgical approaches can be used, but are considered only when surgery is impractical. Treatments such as oral dissolution therapy and extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (EWSL), among others, may be considered, but are only suitable for treating cholesterol stones.
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If you suspect you have gallstones or have been diagnosed with this condition, keep in mind that gallbladder surgery is one of the most common surgeries in adults. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any concerns or questions you have.