What Are Gallstones?

Gallstones (choleliths) are solid bodies formed in the gallbladder by concretion or accretion of normal or abnormal bile components. Their size ranges from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a golf ball. It is common to have smaller gallstones, but a larger gallstone or any combination of sizes is also possible. Around 20% American adults may have gallstones, but only 1%-3% of them develop symptoms.

Causes of gallstones

Crystalline particles in the gallbladder may form when the bile contains high amount of cholesterol or produces excessive levels of bilirubin. Pigment stones usually form in people with blood or liver disease. Another possible cause is poor muscle tone, which may prevent the gallbladder from emptying completely.

Women and overweight people have higher risk of forming cholesterol gallstones. Gallstones may also form when you suddenly lose a lot of weight on a starvation or crash diet, or when you take certain medications like cholesterol-lowering drugs or birth control pills.

Symptoms of gallstones

60%-80% of people with gallstones don’t develop any symptom. As a matter of fact, most of them don’t know they have stones in their gallbladders unless symptoms, which eventually occur with the development of complications. A common symptom is pain in the upper right of the abdomen.

Some episodes occur every few days or weeks, while some occur every few months or even years. The attack usually starts 30 minutes after a greasy or fatty meal. It can be severe, dull, or constant, and usually lasts up to five hours. The pain may radiate to the back or right shoulder. Other common symptoms include fever, nausea and vomiting, intolerance for greasy or fatty foods, jaundice or the yellowing of the eyes and skin, indigestion, belching, and bloating.

How gallstones are diagnosed?

Ultrasound is used to examine the gallbladder for solid particles. Using painless sound waves, ultrasound allows you to see any abnormality in the biliary system such as gallstones or signs of infection or inflammation. Oral cholecystogram (OCG) is an alternative to ultrasound. In this method, your gallbladder is x-rayed after taking pills containing a safe and temporary dye. Both methods are 95% in detecting gallstones.

How to treat gallstones?

Gallstones have no permanent medical treatment. While there are measures that can relieve symptoms or remove stones, these measures are only temporary. Surgery is the best option for treatment. Asymptomatic gallstones often don’t require treatment.

How to prevent gallstones?

A low-cholesterol, low-fat diet can prevent and ease gallstone symptoms but it can’t prevent the formation of the solid particles. Why some people form gallstones and others don’t remains a medical mystery.