Gallstones: Are You At Risk?
Your gallbladder is a small organ that’s tucked in a recess under your liver. At a minuscule three inches in size, it is something you probably don’t think about or even notice.
This all changes if you’ve got gallstones. When they lodge in your bile ducts, they can cause pain, inflammation, and sometimes serious medical conditions.
Are you at risk? Find out what they are and whether you’re susceptible to them.
What Is The Gallbladder?
The gallbladder is a small organ that is under your liver on the right side of your body. It stores bile, a substance the liver produces, and releases it when food enters the digestive tract.
What Is Bile?
Bile is a thick, green liquid that the gallbladder stores and secretes to help digest the fats you eat and to remove waste from your body. It also aids in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and the excretion of fecal waste.
Bile consists of bile salts, water, bilirubin and biliverdin (bile pigments), lecithin (a substance that helps with fat digestion and absorption), and cholesterol.
Through shared ducts (tunnel-like structures) called the biliary system, bile flows from the liver to the gallbladder. From there, bile is released into the small intestine to aid in digestion.
What Are Gallstones?
Gallstones are hard, stone-like masses of digestive juices. They can materialize as one large stone, many small ones, or a combination of both. The smallest ones can be the size of a grain of salt, while others can be golf ball-size. Gallstones can take years to grow.
The smaller ones are the most hazardous because they can get trapped in a bile duct and block it, potentially leading to pancreas, liver, or bile duct infections. The larger ones are too big to get wedged in this duct, but they can also cause serious health issues.
If you have stones once, chances are you’ll have them again.
What Types Of Stones Are There?
There are two types:
Cholesterol stones are the most common type of gallstone. Four out of five people who have gallstones have cholesterol stones. They’re made of solidified cholesterol and are typically yellow.
This type of gallstone forms when your liver makes more cholesterol than your gallbladder can dissolve.
Pigment gallstones are brown or black and are made of bilirubin pigment rather than cholesterol. They form when your liver manufactures more bilirubin than the gallbladder can break up.
Stones can also form if your gallbladder becomes full and can’t empty its bile. When this happens, the bile becomes too condensed, resulting in gallstones.
Who Is At High Risk For Gallstones?
You may be at risk if:
You’ve Experienced Rapid Weight Loss
When you lose weight at a steady pace, the newer, slimmer you will be less susceptible to heart disease, diabetes, and other serious disorders. This is healthy weight loss.
If you lose weight rapidly, you may be setting yourself up for gallstones. Weight loss is too rapid if you lose more than two pounds per week.
When your weight is quickly reduced, your liver can release too much cholesterol into the bile. Your gallbladder can’t adequately release this bile when you’re quickly dropping weight, which could lead to gallstones.
Gallstones are more likely to form if you’re over 40. The older you get, the greater the odds that you’ll get them. When you’re in this age group, more cholesterol is released into the bile, increasing the likelihood of gallstones. Children rarely have gallstones.
Pregnancy hormones, hormone replacement therapy, or birth control pills can escalate estrogen levels. Excess estrogen can increase the bile’s cholesterol levels and restrict gallbladder movement. This can put you at risk for gallstones.
Predisposition to gallstones can run in families and be passed along genetically. Sometimes when a gene that is responsible for the transfer of cholesterol from the liver to the gallbladder mutates, it can produce stones. Some people also have a defective protein that creates gallstones.
If someone in your family has gallstones, there’s a chance you could develop them too.
Obesity can lead to a host of health issues, and one of them is gallstones. If you’re overweight, the cholesterol levels in the bile increase, which can increase your risk.
This risk also increases if you carry the surplus weight around your waist.
If you are Native American, you may be at risk because of a gene that releases excess cholesterol into bile. Pima Indians have the highest incident of gallstones in the United States.
Although findings are inconclusive about what causes gallstones in diabetics, there are a few relevant theories.
- People with Type Two diabetes typically are obese, and obesity elevates cholesterol flow into the gallbladder. This excess cholesterol builds up in the gallbladder and can produce gallstones.
- People with diabetes may also be at risk because they have high triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are fats situated in the blood, which are much like cholesterol.
- Gallstones in diabetics may result from impairment of the nerves controlling bowel and gallbladder movement. If bile isn’t releasing correctly, it can result in the development of stones.
Interestingly, some cholesterol-reducing drugs can put you at risk for gallstones. These include Lopid and Tricor.
These medicines can effectively lower blood cholesterol, but they increase bile cholesterol, causing stones’ development.
An unhealthy diet overloaded with high-fat, highly processed foods can set the stage for gallstones. These include:
- Fried foods.
- Fatty red meat.
- Processed foods.
Since a gallstone is made of cholesterol, cholesterol will be increased by any junk foods you eat. This will significantly increase your risk for developing them.
What Are The Symptoms Of Gallstones?
The symptoms equate to their size. They typically include:
- Sharp, steady pain in the upper abdomen that quickly escalates.
- Pain that lasts 30 minutes to several hours.
- Pain between your shoulder blades.
- Nausea or vomiting.
You may also experience:
More severe symptoms include:
- Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes (jaundice).
- Dark urine.
- Clay-hued bowel movements.
What Happens If Gallstones Aren’t Treated?
Small stones can sometimes pass on their own through the bile ducts and intestine and exit in your feces.
Others may not, and this can cause dangerous conditions:
- Jaundice – Jaundice is a condition in which the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow. It’s caused by a stone that gets stuck in the bile duct and obstructs the bile flow. Jaundice indicates a severe, underlying issue.
- Pancreatitis – Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas caused by a stone blocking the pancreas’ opening.
- Acute cholangitis – This is an infection of a blocked bile duct.
- Acute cholecystitis – Acute cholecystitis happens when a gallstone obstructs a bile duct. This causes an accumulation of bile in the gallbladder, leading to inflammation and pain.
- Blockage of the bile ducts and liver.
- Tears in the gallbladder (this can be life-threatening).
Can Gallstones Be Treated?
Yes, there are treatments that vary depending upon the severity of the condition.
ERCP (Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography)
For this procedure, a tube (endoscope) is inserted from your mouth to your small intestine. A dye is sent through the tube into your bile ducts so that they can be visible on X-rays. The gallstone is removed through the endoscope.
Sphincterotomies are also done with an endoscope. Sphincters or taut muscles surrounding the bile ducts’ openings can obstruct gallstones. During a sphincterotomy, these muscles are cut, which allows the ducts to expand and release the stones.
Oral Dissolution Therapy
This treatment involves taking a medicine composed of bile acid. This medicine must be taken continuously or the stones will come back.
Gallbladder Removal (cholecystectomy)
When stones cannot be eliminated with an endoscope, your gallbladder is removed. You can live without a gallbladder because your liver will release bile directly into your small intestine.
If a gallstone obstructs bile acid and causes an infection, your gallbladder will be removed. If you’re too ill to withstand an operation, a drainage tube will be put in your gallbladder via your abdomen. This drains the infection and eliminates the obstruction.
It’s possible for anyone to have gallstones, but certain factors may put you at a higher risk for them. At Gastro MD, our industry-leading physicians will take time to discuss your risks and expertly provide medical care should you need it.
Contact us today! The team of professionals at GastroMD looks forward to working with you. We are one of the leading gastroenterology practices in the Tampa Bay area. We perform a host of diagnostic procedures using state-of-the-art equipment in a friendly, comfortable, and inviting atmosphere where patient care is always a top priority!