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Gallstones are solid pieces of stones that form in the gallbladder – a small organ at the bottom of the liver. This medical condition is usually caused by cholesterol.

The gallbladder functions to store and release bile produced by the liver and aid digestion. Bile also carries impurities or waste such as cholesterol that appear after the body processes and breaks down red blood cells.

Gallstones come in various sizes, ranging from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a golf ball. A patient with gallstones may not realize the presence of the condition until the stone blocks the bile duct, causing pain that requires immediate treatment.

In some cases, gallstones do not cause symptoms and go away on their own.

People with a higher risk of developing gallstones include:

  • Pregnant women.
  • People with obesity.
  • Are over 40 years of age.
  • Those who don’t exercise enough.
  • Regular consumption of birth control pills.
  • Consumption of cholesterol-lowering medications.
  • Have a similar family medical history.
  • Have a diet high in fat and cholesterol but low in fiber.
  • Experience drastic weight loss from diet

Causes of Gallstones

Gallstones are thought to be caused by an imbalanced levels of chemicals in the tissues in the gallbladder. The exact cause behind this imbalance is unknown.

Gallstones usually appear if you have very high levels of:

  • Cholesterol, 90% of gallstone symptoms are caused by cholesterol.
  • Waste produced by the body called bilirubin remains in the gallbladder.

Both cholesterol and bilirubin have the potential to cause the emergence of tiny crystals in the gallbladder. These tiny crystals will gradually enlarge over the years.

Sometimes, the gallbladder only forms one gallstone. However, it is not uncommon for patients to experience more than one gallstone at the same time.

Gallstone conditions can affect anyone. Pregnant women, diabetic patients, and people who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of developing gallstones. Gallstones can also develop when a person is undergoing a diet or fasting.

When to See a Doctor for Gallstones?

Gallstone conditions may be detected when the patient undergoes health screening. If the doctor finds the symptoms of gallstones, the patient may be referred to a gastroenterologist.

The initial test will be carried out through a medical interview by enquiring about the patient’s medical history and the patient’s family history. This will be followed by a physical test.

The doctor will place his/her hand or finger on the patient’s upper right abdomen and ask the patient to inhale. If this procedure causes pain, this indicates that the gallbladder is inflamed and requires immediate treatment.

To further confirm the condition of the gallstones, the doctor may order the patient to undergo a series of blood tests to detect liver function and confirm infection.

In certain cases, tests for gallstones may also involve:

  • CT Scan, this will help doctors see parts of the internal organs, including the gallbladder.
  • Magnetic Resonance Cholangiopancreatography (MRCP), a test that uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create images of the inside of the body, including the liver and gallbladder.
  • Cholecintigraphy, also known as HIDA Scan, a nuclear scanning method to check liver function.
  • Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), a method to diagnose conditions in the digestive system using a tube called an endoscope inserted from the patient’s mouth.

Symptoms of Gallstones

Gallstones do not cause specific symptoms. However, if the stone begins to block the passage of the bile duct, the patient may experience sudden and severe symptoms of abdominal pain. A sudden and severe symptom of abdominal pain is also called biliary colic. This pain can last between one to five hours, but may also last for only a few minutes.

Biliary colic is characterized by constant pain that does not improve even after bowel movement. Sometimes, this pain is triggered by fatty foods, but it can happen at any time.

The pain does not occur on a regular basis. Normally, after experiencing the symptoms of biliary colic, the next round of symptoms will appear after several weeks or even months.

Some people also experience nausea and vomiting, with excessive sweating when the symptoms of biliary colic appear.

Apart from biliary colic, the symptoms of gallstones may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Pain in the upper right abdomen.
  • Pain in the right shoulder and back.
  • Other symptoms of digestive problems.

Treatment for Gallstones

The doctor’s treatment of gallstones depends on the severity of the gallstone. If the patient does not experience any symptoms, the doctor will recommend regular tests and monitoring.

Treatment will start if gallstones are triggered by other medical conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

For symptoms of biliary colic, treatment is determined based on the intensity of the pain. If the pain lasts for a short period of time, the doctor will give the patient pain relievers. If the pain is more acute, treatment may call for surgery to remove the gallstone.

The most common surgical procedure performed to treat gallstones is called laparoscopic cholecystectomy – the removal of the gallbladder.

This surgery involves inserting a small, narrow tube called a laparoscope into the stomach through a small incision. The laparoscope is equipped with a light and camera. The gallbladder will then be removed through another incision.

Treatment Cost for Gallstones

Treatment for gallstones varies, depending on the size of the stone, the symptoms experienced, and the treatment method recommended.

For more information regarding the estimated costs of gallstones treatment, contact Smarter Health.

Prevention of Gallstones

To prevent gallstone symptoms, you can start by changing your lifestyle: 

  • Eat foods high in fiber, such as fish oil and olive oil. Avoid consuming sugar and refined carbohydrates.
  • Exercise regularly, at least five times a week, for 30 minutes each time.
  • Avoid diets that may lead to drastic weight loss in a short period of time.

Home Remedies for Patients Diagnosed with Gallstones

Patients diagnosed with gallstones can perform home remedies that include starting a healthier lifestyle and regularly consuming medications as prescribed by the doctor.

If you do not feel any certain symptoms, it is recommended that you maintain your health and undergo routine check-ups. In the event that pain or discomfort occurs, take your pain reliever as per your doctor’s prescription.  

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