by Kimberly Allen, RN
Gallstones are formed when substances like cholesterol and other things that are in bile harden forming “stones” in your gallbladder and/or bile ducts. These stones can range in size from being smaller than a grain of sand to as big as a golf ball. In the US gallstones are very common. You can develop just one gallstone or you can develop many at the same time. Gallstones usually develop in older people, especially over 60 years of age, however, the can form in children and teens as well. One of the girls in the orphanage where I volunteer developed a whole gallbladder full of gallstones when she was just 13 years old.
Women are more prone to developing gallstones than men. Also, Native Americans and Mexican Americans are more prone to developing gallstones than other ethnic groups. Gallstones can also run in families. Gallstones also form more frequently in people that eat a high fat, high cholesterol diet with minimal fiber. For example, the young girl that developed gallstones, in the culture here almost everything is fried in oil and there is only minimal fiber in the diet. The doctor was amazed at how many gallstones this young girl had.
Though doctors are not sure exactly what causes gallstones to develop they believe that they form when your bile has too much cholesterol that your liver excretes. When your liver excretes more cholesterol than your bile has the ability to dissolve, it forms crystals which turn into stones. Also, if your bile has too much bilirubin stones can form. There are some medical conditions like cirrhosis and biliary tract infections as well as some blood disorders that can cause your liver to produce too much bilirubin. In some people their gallbladder doesn’t empty properly and the bile becomes very concentrated which can also lead to the development of gallstones.
Some people have gallstones and never have symptoms while others may experience severe symptoms. If there are a lot of gallstones or if one moves into a duct and causes a blockage you may experience a sudden pain that intensifies quickly in the upper right side of your abdomen. In some people the pain is more to the center just under the breast bone. You can also have pain in your back between the shoulder blades or in your right shoulder. This pain can last anywhere from several minutes to a few hours.
Gallstones that are not causing any symptoms usually don’t require treatment. However, those that are causing symptoms can lead to complications and usually require treatment. When your gallstones are causing symptoms requiring treatment the doctor may recommend surgery to remove the gallbladder. This is not as serious as it may sound as you can live and continue to digest food without your gallbladder. Most people that have their gallbladder removed only need to make minor adjustments in their diet like decreasing fatty foods in their diet. There are also medications that can help dissolve gallstones. The problem with this method is that it can take from months to years to dissolve them so this method is usually reserved for those people that are not surgical candidates.
The best way to prevent gallstones is to maintain a healthy weight as being over weight or obese increase your chances of developing gallstones. Eating a healthy diet that is low in fat and cholesterol and high in fiber will help to keep you bile from having too much cholesterol in it leading to gallstones.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.