Gallbladder stones are hardened combinations of digestive fluid that build in your gallbladder. Often they are not a concern to your health, but they may develop complications if they become loose and move into your bile duct. In this article, you will learn about the symptoms, causes, risk factors, prevention, and treatment of gallbladder stones.
What are gallbladder stones?
Gallbladder stones are also called gallstones. Gallstones are solid substances of digestive fluid that develop in your gallbladder, a small organ-like pea-shaped located under your liver. Your gallbladder keeps a digestive fluid that forms in your liver known as bile, which releases into your small intestine. Bile helps in digestion besides carrying waste substances such as cholesterol and bilirubin that develop during the breakdown of red blood cells. Gallstones are generally formed from cholesterol or bilirubin that deposit under your gallbladder. After that, the hardened or solid substances convert into stones.
Gallstones may vary in size from a small grain of sand to a ping pong ball. With time the size of gallstones increases because the bile washes over them through which they get additional substances. The smaller stones than larger ones may create more difficulty. As smaller stones can be moved easily and pass out from your body, whereas larger stones remain in their position. People may not think that they have gallstones till they develop a blockage in the bile duct that result in severe pain.
Types of gallstones
Two main types of gallstones can be found under your gallbladder that include:
- Cholesterol stones: These are the common stones that create 80% of gallstones. They are yellow-green.
- Pigment stones: They develop from bilirubin. These are small in size and dark in color.
Symptoms of gallbladder stones
Gallbladder stones generally do not show signs and symptoms. You experience symptoms when gallstones block the bile flow by obstructing the bile duct. Following are the symptoms that include:
- Intense pain in the upper right area of your abdomen
- Severe pain in the center of your abdomen within your ribs
- Back pain
- Right shoulder pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Digestive disorders, such as heartburn, gas, and indigestion
When to consult a doctor?
You may need to consult a doctor if you see the signs and symptoms of gallstones. Gallstones may remain for several minutes to hours. Request an instant medical consultation from a provider if you experience signs and symptoms of extreme gallbladder stones that include:
- Intense pain in your abdomen, which creates difficulty sitting still or getting the relaxing position
- Skin color turns yellow while eyes turn white. It is a condition of jaundice.
- Fever or chills
How to diagnose gallstones?
If you have symptoms of gallbladder stones, you need to discuss them with your provider. Your healthcare provider will recommend blood tests and imaging tests to diagnose gallbladder stones.
Blood tests: These help to see symptoms of infection or blockage and detect other medical conditions.
Imaging tests: Here are the imaging tests that help to diagnose gallstones, including
- Ultrasound. It develops the internal images of your body.
- CT scan. It consists of X-rays, which help your provider look inside your body, including your gallbladder.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). ERCP is one of the leading tests to look for gallstones because it can help to eliminate them from the bile duct. In this test, a healthcare provider passes a tube from your mouth to your small intestine known as an endoscope. A provider inserts a dye material to see the path of the bile duct through a camera located at the endoscope. If they find gallbladder stones, they may insert a tube to eliminate them.
- Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP). This test utilizes a combination of a magnetic field and a series of radio waves to develop inside images of your body, such as the liver and gallbladder.
- Cholescintigraphy (HIDA scan). This test can determine how well your gallbladder compresses. In a HIDA scan, a healthcare provider inserts radioactive material into the organ. A lab technician can follow the movement of this material, which may help detect cholecystitis (gallbladder inflammation) from gallstones.
- Endoscopic ultrasound. This test uses both ultrasound and an endoscope. It helps to see gallstones in areas where it is hard to look with other imaging tests, specifically in the common bile ducts.
Causes of gallbladder stones
Healthcare providers do not tell with certainty about the causes of gallstones. These are the possible reasons that include:
- High cholesterol deposition in your bile. Bile is the fluid that includes the required chemicals to dissolve cholesterol released by your liver. If you experience a condition when your liver releases more cholesterol compared to bile’s ability to dissolve, the excess cholesterol converts into hardened substances and then into stones.
- A Large amount of bilirubin in your bile. Bilirubin is a chemical substance that develops during the breakdown of red blood cells. These are the conditions that may urge your liver to develop more bilirubin which include:
- Liver cirrhosis (long-term liver failure or damage)
- Infection in your biliary tract
- Specific blood disorders
This bilirubin leads to the development of gallbladder stones.
- Gallbladder fails to empty properly. Bile can be too concentrated if your gallbladder is unable to clear fully. It leads to gallstones.
Risk factors of gallbladder stones
These are the risk factors that may result in the formation of stones in the gallbladder include:
- Having a family history of gallstones
- If you are a woman or pregnant
- Having age above 40
- Being overweight
- Taking a diet that contains a large amount of fat and cholesterol
- Taking a diet that includes low fiber
- Lack of physical activity or exercise
- Dealing with diabetes
- Using medicines like birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
- If you are of Native American or Mexican descent
- Having liver disease such as liver cirrhosis
- Possessing specific blood disorders such as hemolytic anemia or sickle cell anemia
- Weight loss in less period
- Using medication to decrease cholesterol
What are the complications of gallbladder stones?
Gallbladder may lead to severe complications, which are as follows:
- Gallstones can block the bile duct (the tubes transport bile from your gallbladder or liver to the small intestine). It results in intense pain, infection in the bile duct, and jaundice.
- A gallstone stuck in the gallbladder neck leads to gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis). It can lead to fever and extreme pain.
- If you have a blockage in your bile duct, it may have a chance of an infection.
- The pancreatic duct is a tube that starts from the pancreas and links to the common bile duct. Pancreatic juices also help in digestion and move via the pancreatic duct.
Blockage in the pancreatic duct produces due to gallstones that result in pancreas inflammation (pancreatitis). Pancreatitis leads to extreme and consistent abdominal pain and often requires proper treatment at the hospital.
Gallbladder cancer. You are at risk of gallbladder cancer if you have a history of gallstones. This cancer is not common, therefore the risk of cancer is high, and the presence of gallbladder cancer is not considerable.
You do not require treatment if you do not experience signs and symptoms of gallbladder stones. Small gallstones that are not stuck in the bile duct can come out from your body on their own. In most cases, healthcare providers use surgical methods to bring out gallbladders if you have gallstones. These are the two methods that your provider will ask you to conduct.
Laparoscopic cholecystectomy: The most common surgery for gallbladder stones. This method usually works on a small cut. The surgeon inserts a narrow tube known as a laparoscope into your abdomen by applying a small cut. The tube is attached to a camera and small light. Your provider will remove the gallbladder via small cuts with special devices.
Open cholecystectomy: In this method, a doctor applies larger cuts into your abdomen to remove the gallbladder. You will ask to stay in the hospital after surgery. You may need open surgery if you experience bleeding problems. You will also require it if you are dealing with severe gallbladder disease, obesity, or in the last three months of your pregnancy.
Your healthcare provider may recommend ERCP to detect and remove gallstones if present in your bile ducts.
Medications: If your provider considers that you may have other medical problems and do not need surgery, they could provide you with medication. A healthcare provider may recommend medications such as chenodiol and ursodiol to dissolve small stones in your gallbladder. You may need to take medicines for a long time to dissolve the cholesterol or bilirubin stones and return when you avoid getting them.
How To Prevent Gallstones?
Following are some steps of prevention that you can apply in your lifestyle include:
- Do not avoid meals. Schedule your meal times daily and follow them. If you avoid taking meals, this can result in the risk of gallstones.
- Add more fiber to your diet. You can take more fiber-containing foods, including fruits, whole grains, and vegetables.
- Reduce the intake of fats. Avoid sugars, carbohydrates, and processed foods. These can lead to adding more cholesterol (fat) in your blood.
- Avoid losing weight quickly. If your provider recommends you lose weight, start at a slow pace of at least one to two pounds a week. Sudden weight loss can lead to a high chance of gallstones.
- Keep a healthy weight. If you have extra weight, this may lead to the development of stones in your gallbladder. You can maintain a healthy weight by decreasing your calorie intake and doing physical activity. Do regular exercise for at least 30 minutes a day. Speak to your provider online to get recommendations for balancing your weight.
Gallstones are common in people who often do not feel them until they have signs and symptoms. These stones in your gallbladder may result in bile duct blockage, which can cause intense pain and other conditions. A healthcare provider will use tests to locate the positions where gallstones are present. Laparoscopic gallbladder removal is one of the general methods to diagnose and remove gallstones. By following the above prevention steps, you can avoid developing stones in your gallbladder. Request an online medical consultation if you have the signs and symptoms of gallbladder stones.