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Gallstones

Introduction

Gallstones are a common complaint resulting from an imbalance in the digestive disorder. Hardened masses resembling stones form from excess calcium salt, cholesterol and bile pigment in the bile duct or gallbladder.

Causes

There isn't one specific cause of gallstones. An imbalance in the gallbladder or bile duct may lead to an excess int he production of cholesterol or bilirubin which can't be broken down effectively. These properties then crystalise to form either cholesterol gallstones or pigment gallstones.

Factors that may contribute to gallstones:

  • Pregnancy.
  • Obesity.
  • A high-fat diet.
  • Lack of exercise.
  • Family history.
  • Lack of fibre.
  • High cholesterol diet.
  • Diabetes.
  • Certain medication.
  • Liver disease.
  • Poorly functioning gallbladder.

Symptoms

Symptoms vary with the severity of the condition. In minor cases, gallstones may cause no symptoms and are only identified when an examination of the gallbladder takes place.

Gallstones themselves don't cause pain, but pain may arise from the gallbladder or bile duct if stones increase in size or cause irritation or infection.

Symptoms such as nausea, jaundice, vomiting, diarrhoea, indigestion, localised pain in the gallbladder or changes in the colour of stool may indicate the presence of gallstones.

Diagnosis

Imaging testing such as a CT scan or ultrasound will diagnose the presence and severity of gallstones.

Treatment

Treatment of gallstones is based on the severity.

If the gallstones don't cause pain or discomfort, your doctor may observe the gallstones before deciding on a treatment program. In cases where they're small and soft, they may break down themselves and pass through the stool. 

Medication and shattering of stones are options but are rarely chosen as they don't stop future recurrences of gallstones. Once you've had one incidence, unless the imbalance that caused them is addressed, they're likely to recur.

Various lifestyle factors can reduce the symptoms of gallstones such as changes in diet to remove fatty foods and extra cholesterol or starting an exercise program to reduce excess weight.

Surgery

In severe cases where gallstones risk blocking the bile duct, a cholecystectomy is a surgical procedure to remove the gallbladder.  This is a straightforward procedure with no long-term implications for the patient.

Outcome

Gallstones aren't necessarily a complex condition and symptoms are often intermittent. Complications may arise if the gallstones cause an infection of the liver known as cholecystitis, or if they block the bile duct, urgent treatment may be required.