The gallbladder is a small sac that lies under the liver and is part of the digestive system. Gallstones are solid particles that form from bile, a substance the liver makes to help to digest fats. The bile is stored in the gallbladder, which removes some of the liquid from the bile. Gallstones can stay in the gallbladder or may be pushed out into the ducts.
Click on the statements/questions below to reveal the answers to the causes, symtoms and signs of this particular disease.
You are more likely to get gallstones if you:
- are female,
- are pregnant, are on hormone replacement therapy or take birth control pills,
- are overweight,
- have Type 2 Diabetes,
- are Native American,
- have sickle cell anemia or another disease that breaks down red blood cells and/or
- have, or have had, family members with gallstones.
You may have pain in your upper abdomen or back, or in the center of your chest after meals, especially after eating heavy or high-fat meals. Nausea and vomiting are also common symptoms. If the gallstones have moved into the main duct and clog it, you will experience jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes).
The stones can also cause pancreatitis, an inflammatory reaction in the pancreas that can be life threatening. The main symptom of pancreatitis is severe pain in the middle of the upper abdomen.
In addition to a medical history, your doctor will conduct a physical exam and may order the following tests:
- Ultrasound scan
- CT scan
- HIDA scan
A HIDA scan is an imaging procedure that helps track the production and flow of bile from your liver to your small intestine using an injection of a radioactive dye. The abbreviation stands for Hepatobiliary Iminodiacetic Acid Scan.
If your gallstones are causing only mild pain, your physician may recommend a low-fat diet and possibly pain relievers.
Usually, gallstones are treated with surgery to remove the gallbladder. This procedure, known as a cholecystectomy, may be performed either as a traditional surgery with a 4-7 inch incision or laparoscopically (see sidebar).
In some cases, especially if you are not well enough to have surgery, other treatments may be tried, including attempting to dissolve small stones with medicine. Since the gallstones may come back, it is generally best to remove the gallbladder.
Be sure to follow your doctor’s recommendations regarding diet including reducing fat consumption (especially animal fat in meat and dairy products) and increasing fiber intake (whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables). If you are overweight, try to reach a healthy weight with proper eating and exercise. If you have gallstones and take birth control pills, you may want to ask your physician if you should try another form of birth control.
You can reduce the likelihood of getting gallstones by maintaining a healthy weight, eating a diet low in fat and keeping physically active. You should also avoid fasting – long periods of fasting can cause gallstones because bile stays in the gallbladder too long.