You wake up with the worst stomach ache you’ve ever had. The pain is excruciating — what could it be? It could be gallbladder stones. It doesn’t feel like food poisoning. And it’s not your appendix.
What Are Gallbladder Stones?
The gallbladder is a small organ on the right side of the body, near the liver. Its job is to hold and concentrate some of the bile that the liver produces, then release it into the small intestine. The bile then helps your body to digest its food, particularly fats.
Sometimes there is an imbalance of the chemicals that make up the bile inside the gallbladder. This can cause gallstones to form. Most often, gallstones form when the cholesterol levels in bile become too high. The excess cholesterol forms hard stones. Gallstones can also form from bilirubin. Gallbladder stones may be as small as a grain of sand, or as large as a golf ball. There may be one, or many. Some people can have gallbladder stones for years, and never experience symptoms. For others, though, the symptoms can be excruciating. In addition, complications from gallstones can be life-threatening.
What Are the Risk Factors for Gallbladder Stones?
Can you prevent gallstones? Not in all cases. However, there are a number of factors that are within your control. Other factors, however, are not.
Obesity increases a person’s chances of a number of health problems. Gallbladder stones are one of them. How? Well, obesity is associated with lower motility of bile in the gallbladder. That is, the bile does not move from the gallbladder to the lower intestine as often as it should. In addition, obesity is also associated with a higher concentration of cholesterol in the bile. Both of these factors can lead to the formation of gallstones.
Very low-calorie diets and rapid weight loss
By this reasoning, one might think that losing weight will lower a person’s chances of developing gallstones. Yes and no. Research has also shown that very low-calorie diets and rapid weight loss can cause gallbladder stones to form. In fact, a study in Obesity Research found that obese people who are actively losing weight are 15 to 25 times more likely to develop new gallstones than obese people who are not dieting. It comes down to three factors: the severity of caloric limitation, how quickly a person loses weight, and how long the diet lasts. All three of these things increase the chances of developing gallbladder stones.
So, should you try to lose weight or not? Follow your doctor’s advice. However, most doctors who advise their patients to lose weight will also suggest doing it slowly and carefully, with balanced nutrition, and without starving yourself. Gallbladder stones are one reason why.
Eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates also increases your chances of developing gallstones. Refined, or simple, carbohydrates include sugars and processed grains. While your body needs carbohydrates, foods rich in refined carbohydrates have had the fiber and most of the nutrients removed during processing. When you eat refined carbohydrates, your body digests them quickly. As a result, blood sugar levels rise rapidly and insulin spikes. And this, too, can lead to gallstone formation.
Gender, age, and ethnicity
Women, unfortunately, are more prone to developing gallbladder stones, especially before menopause. Gallstones are also more common in people over 40 years of age. In addition, people of European descent are more likely to develop gallstones than people of most other ethnicities. Native Americans are the exception. It’s estimated that 48 percent of Native Americans either have or will develop gallbladder stones. Some scientists believe that melatonin helps to prevent gallstones. Why? Melatonin inhibits cholesterol secretion from the gallbladder. In addition, it helps convert cholesterol to bile.
Symptoms of Gallbladder Stones
Many people have gallstones for years and never know it. For other people, the pain can be excruciating. How can you tell if your bellyache is gallstones, rather than food poisoning or appendicitis? Could your pain be gallbladder stones symptoms? Here are some tips.
The gallbladder is located on the right-hand side of the body, near the bottom of the rib cage. You may feel a sharp, stabbing pain there. You might also feel a dull, crushing ache. Many have described gallbladder pain as feeling like a tight band that goes around the entire body, at the level of the bottom of the rib cage. The pain may radiate to your back, to between your shoulders, or to below your right shoulder blade.
Gallbladder pain often starts in the middle of the night. In addition, it can last from half an hour to five hours or more.
Response to medication
Some people mistake gallbladder symptoms for food poisoning or indigestion. However, common remedies like bicarbonate of soda in water, or Pepto Bismol, will have no effect on gallbladder pain.
Food poisoning often has additional symptoms like nausea after eating, vomiting, and diarrhea. Gallbladder pain may be so intense that it makes you feel nauseous. You might also vomit during a gallstone attack. Some people also experience a fever. However, diarrhea is not common.
How Serious Is It?
Sometimes gallbladder stones are asymptomatic. That is, the patient never knows they’re there. But sometimes gallstones can cause debilitating pain in the form of attacks that last up to five hours. The pain is reason enough to seek treatment. However, complications from gallstones can be life-threatening.
Gallstones can cause inflammation of the gallbladder, the liver, and the pancreas. They can also block the bile duct, which can harm the pancreas. In cases of severe inflammation, a gallstone may erode through the gallbladder and into the bowel, and cause an obstruction called gallstone illeus.
What to Do If You Suspect You Have Gallbladder Stones
If you are experiencing pain that you think may be gallstone pain, see a doctor immediately. The doctor will likely ask about your symptoms. Then he or she may order an ultrasound. An ultrasound is a non-invasive, painless scan of your abdomen, that will show whether or not you have stones in your gallbladder. If there are stones, and they are causing you pain, your doctor may suggest a gallbladder removal.
A gallbladder removal is a routine, easy, and common procedure. In fact, it’s one of the most common operations in the United States. Most gallbladder removals can be done using laparoscopy, or “keyhole surgery.” The surgeon will make a small incision, usually less than a centimeter, and will use tiny cameras to guide the operation. It is so easy and so much less invasive than open surgery that many patients go home the same day.
How to Prevent Gallstones
Some factors, like age, gender, and ethnicity, are out of our control. However, there are some things you can do to lessen your chances of developing gallstones.
First, if you are overweight, try to lose weight with a nutritious, common sense program of diet and exercise. Avoid “crash” dieting, fad diets, and very low-calorie diets. Concentrate instead on eating a healthy balance of nutritious foods.
Second, if your doctor suggests weight loss, be sure to ask how to do it safely. Some will prescribe a special gallbladder diet after surgery to prevent indigestion or a recurrence of symptoms. Do not restrict your calories severely, and don’t try to lose weight too fast.
Additionally, no matter what your weight is, try to eat a healthy, high fiber diet. Avoid excessive amounts of refined carbohydrates. Choose whole grains and a plant-based diet instead.
Gallbladder stones can be painful. They can also cause dangerous complications. It’s important to be able to recognize when a belly ache may be something more than just indigestion. Know the signs and symptoms of a gallstone attack. And if you think you might be having one, don’t wait to seek help. Your health is in your hands.