Gallstones just like other stones such as kidney stones, can be very commonly found. However, their symptoms are not very visible. Someone could be suffering from gallstones and be completely unaware. Gallstones are essentially hard, stone-like deposits present in the gallbladder, which is a digestive organ that stores the bile juice that is secreted by the liver. Gallstones can consist of cholesterol, salt or bilirubin and can vary in size, from as small as a grain of sand to being as big as an apricot.
What is the Gallbladder?
The gallbladder is an organ that appears as a small sac and is located on the right side of the body below the liver. The bile juice which is secreted by the liver during the digestive process is stored and concentrated in this organ. It is here known as the gall. This gall then travels into the small intestines through the bile ducts, which help in the digestion process, primarily in the digestion of fats. Every time you eat food, some amount of gall is released into the intestines.
What are Gallstones?
When the chemical substances present in the gallbladder like cholesterol, calcium bilirubinate, and calcium carbonate go out of balance, it could result in the formation of gallstones. There are primarily two types of gallstones:
Cholesterol gallstones: Cholesterol gallstones occur when there is an excessive concentration of cholesterol in the bile juice. They are the most common occurrence of gallstones in a number of countries, including the UK and the USA.
Pigment gallstones: These forms of gallstones are formed when there is excessive bilirubin in the bile juice. They are commonly seen among patients suffering from various liver diseases, bile tubes which are infected, or those suffering from blood disorders including anemia.
What are the Main Causes Behind Gallstones?
There are several reasons which could result in gallstone formation in a person, including:
- Genetic reasons
- Being overweight
- Conditions associated with the gallbladder
- Diet-related concerns
Bile is one of the essential triggers of gallstones in a person. While bile is an important constituent of the digestive system in a person, if it contains excessive cholesterol, it could lead to the formation of gallstones easily.
Gallstones could also be triggered if the gallbladder fails to empty out appropriately.
What Puts You At Risk of Gallstones?
You're most likely to get affected by gallstones if you are suffering from one or more of these conditions:
Obesity: Obesity is one of the most important risk factors that can considerably increase the cholesterol levels in a person which can, in turn, raise the risks of suffering from gallbladder stones. Hence, obesity can make it more difficult for the gallbladder to empty out entirely.
Birth control pills: Those who are consuming birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy for menopause symptoms, or are expecting could be at higher risk of gallbladder stones. Estrogen is a hormone that is triggered by the above conditions and this, in turn, can lead to an increase in the cholesterol levels which can eventually lead to gallbladder stones.
Diabetes: People with diabetes can often suffer from higher levels of triglycerides which could lead to an occurrence of gallstones.
A few of these drugs can increase the cholesterol levels in the bile juice, which in turn increases the chances of getting cholesterol stones.
Rapid weight loss can also lead to gallstones.
How Does a Doctor Diagnose a Gallbladder Stone?
If your doctor suspects you are suffering from gallstones, he or she may conduct a physical examination to clarify their doubt based on your symptoms. Apart from this, they may also carry out the below-mentioned tests to confirm the diagnosis.
- Blood Tests: To look for symptoms of an infection or an obstruction of any sort, and to confirm no other medical condition is causing the symptoms.
- Ultrasound Scan: This is a rather quick way to understand what is going on inside the body to be causing the symptoms. This scan generates a picture of the specific part of the body, allowing the doctor to locate the gallstone in the body.
- CT Scan: If the ultrasound scan is not able to produce the clear images that help the doctor ascertain the presence of the stone, then a CT Scan is often recommended to get a more clear picture of the condition. CT scans produce sharp radiation images that allow the doctor get a better picture of the body inside, including the gallbladder.
- Magnetic Resonance Cholangiopancreatography (MRCP): This test is conducted through a magnetic field and pulse of radio wave energy that generates a better picture of the body inside, including the organs like the liver and the gallbladder.
- Cholescintigraphy (HIDA scan): This scan primarily checks the functioning of the gallbladder to determine whether the gallbladder is squeezing correctly or not. The doctors inject a radioactive material in the person that goes all the way up to the organ. This material is safe and does not cause any harm to the patient’s body. The lab technicians then study the movement of the material in the body which is indicative of the functioning of the gallbladder.
- Endoscopic Ultrasound: This method of testing is a combination of ultrasound and endoscopy that tests for gallstones in a person.
- Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): The endoscopy tube is inserted through the mouth of a person down to the small intestine. A dye is injected along with it, through which the bile ducts are made visible. With this, the doctor can see and remove any form of gallstones that may be visible in a person.
What is The Course of Treatment in Case of Gallstones?
A number of people suffering from gallstones often need a surgery to remove the gallstones from their body. There are two kinds of surgeries involved:
Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy: This is a very common medical procedure wherein an instrument is passed through the belly along with lights and a camera. Small cuts are made in the belly through which the instruments are passed in the body. This procedure is very common and not very critical, although the patient is advised to stay in the hospital for at least a night.
Open Cholecystectomy: This procedure requires the surgeon to make bigger incisions that cut open the belly to remove the gallstones. This procedure requires hospitalization for a few days after the operation. If the gallstones are present in the bile ducts then the doctor may need an ERCP to find and remove them from your body during or after the gallbladder operation.
Treatment Without Surgery: If you are suffering from a medical condition wherein the doctor feels you may not require a surgery, then he may recommend a few medicines like chenodiol (Chenix), ursodiol (Actigall), or both of these drugs. These medicines act by dissolving the cholesterol stones. Some people can experience a mild form of diarrhea as a side effect from this medicine.
The negative side of this medicine is that sometimes it could be a long term thing as it could take years for the stone to dissolve, and there are high chances of a recurrence once the medicine is stopped.