Dr. MJ Bazos MD,
What are gallstones?
The gallbladder is a small "bag" just under your
liver. It stores digestive juices that are made by the liver. Sometimes these
juices become solid and form stones, called gallstones.
What problems can gallstones cause?
About 60% of people with gallstones never get
sick from them. They might never know they have gallstones. However, a gallstone
can leave your gallbladder and go into the passageway from your gallbladder to
your intestine. It might get stuck in that passageway. If the stone completely
blocks the passageway, you will have severe pain in the right upper part of your
belly. You may also feel pain in your upper back. The pain usually starts
suddenly and lasts for as long as 3 hours. This is known as an "attack."
Complete or partial blockage can also cause your
gallbladder to get irritated and inflamed. If this happens, you will usually
have pain for more than 3 hours. You may also get a fever. Your skin may turn a
yellowish color, known as jaundice (say "john-diss").
Who gets gallstones?
You're more likely to get gallstones if:
- You are a woman
- You have diabetes
- Your mother had gallstones
- You are pregnant or taking birth control pills
- You have high blood triglycerides (a type of fat)
- You are fasting or have lost a lot of weight
- You are of
American Indian (especially Pima Indian) or Scandinavian
- You are middle-aged
- You are overweight
How are gallstones usually treated?
If you have gallstones but no pain, chances are
good the stones won't be a problem for you. Your doctor might suggest you leave
Once you have one attack of pain, the chance of
having another one is high--about 70%. Many doctors will suggest you have your
gallbladder removed in surgery to prevent a future attack. You and your doctor
should talk about your situation and decide what is right for you. If your
gallbladder is irritated or inflamed, most doctors will want to take it out
right away. The surgery is safe and effective. Without surgery, the gallbladder
can get infected. It might even burst open, causing further problems.
Are there other treatments?
Yes, there are other treatments. They are
usually for people who would have a high risk in surgery because they are
elderly, or have heart problems or lung disease. Your doctor might be able to
use sound wave therapy to break up the stones so they can move into the
intestine without problem. However, only 1 of 5 people can have this treatment.
People who have this treatment often form new gallstones after a few years.
Or you might take a pill called Actigall to
dissolve the stones. This pill only works in a few people, and it can be very
expensive. Surgery is still the best way to cure gallstones for many people.
Talk with your doctor about what is right for you.