This month we are going to cover gallstones. Again, a common condition that often needs no treatment, but what exactly are they and how do they cause problems?
Gallstones are small stones, usually made of cholesterol, that form in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is a small organ that sits tucked away beneath your liver. It is a storage place for a liquid called bile. As the liver produces bile, it travels into the gallbladder through small tubes called the bile ducts. The gall bladder then releases bile into the digestive tract when it is needed to help break down the fats from your diet. There are different reasons why gallstones form, but most commonly it is because there is too much cholesterol in the bile. The extra cholesterol will form stones as it is not needed elsewhere.
Many people have gallstones in their gallbladder and are none the wiser. Sometimes gallstones show up when people have investigations for an unrelated problem; this is called an “incidental finding”. It is thought that as many as 1 in 10 adults in the UK may have gallstones, although far fewer than this will have symptoms. The groups of people most likely to develop gallstones are those who are overweight, females (especially if they have had children) and those aged over 40 years old.
So what are the symptoms of gallstones? Gallstones in the gallbladder may have no symptoms. Gallstones that move out of the gallbladder and into the bile ducts may become stuck. The stuck stone will cause a sudden and often severe pain in the abdomen (tummy). The pain is often on the upper right side. It might last for several hours before settling down. If you have this pain you might also feel sick or even be sick. These episodes of pain are known as biliary colic. Often biliary colic may be triggered by eating fatty foods – a low fat diet is best if you have this as it can stop these episodes happening. As with almost every condition we cover on this page, keeping your weight down and having a healthy lifestyle is the most important thing you can do to avoid developing this condition.
Sometimes, people with gallstones can develop complications. These can be serious. One complication is a condition called cholecystitis. It means inflammation of the gallbladder. The symptoms include high temperature, persistent pain and sometimes jaundice (yellowing of the skin). Often people with cholecystitis will need admission to hospital for painkillers and treatment with antibiotics.
If gallstones are causing repeated episodes of tummy pain, or more severe complications like cholecystitis or jaundice, then surgery can be performed to remove the gallbladder. Often this is done using keyhole surgery which is simple to perform and has less complications than traditional surgery. You can recover quickly after having your gallbladder removed and live a normal life without it. If the gallbladder is removed, all you have lost is the ability to store bile. The bile produced by the liver will instead empty into the intestine all the time, so it can still do its job in helping you digest the fats in your food.
Gallstones are often diagnosed by a simple ultrasound scan. If you have them, minimising symptoms by sticking to a low fat diet is important. If you need to consider having your gallbladder removed, your GP may refer you to a surgeon who will discuss this with you. Depending on your health, surgery may not be the best option for you as it does come with risks. If you think you might have gallstones, or experience episodes of on-off abdominal pain, then visit your GP – we will try and help get to the bottom of it!
For further information on Gallstones from the NHS visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gallstones/