Gallbladder Stones – Everything you need to know
Gallstones are solid deposits that accrete within the gallbladder when there is a chemical imbalance in the digestive fluid bile. Their prevalence among adults has become increasingly common in recent years. Gallstones are a considerable risk factor for gallbladder cancer, which contributes to around 10% of cancer cases worldwide. Moreover, gallstones have been found in 80% of GBC patients in India. Their presence worsens the condition of cancer patients and decreases the chances of recovery.
This article provides a useful overview of some of the causes, symptoms, recommended treatment and/or surgery for gallbladder stones.
What Are Gallstones?
Gallstones are hard, pebble-like fragments that are caused mainly by an excess of cholesterol, bilirubin or other bile salts.
Their size can vary from as microscopic as grains of sand to as large as a golf ball.
There are two types of gallstones:
- Cholesterol stones that are the consequence of more cholesterol in the gallbladder than the bile salts can dissolve
- Pigment stones, which are composed of calcium salts and bilirubin and tend to develop in patients with pre-existing liver conditions such as cirrhosis, biliary tract infections and certain types of anemia
What Causes Gallbladder Stones?
The exact cause for gallstones or what is medically termed as ‘Cholelithiasis’ has not been established yet. However, researchers believe that high concentrations of cholesterol, bilirubin or bile salts due to poor gallbladder functioning can contribute to the formation of gallbladder stones.
Symptoms of Gallbladder Disease
Most gallbladder stone patients have what are called “silent stones” and, therefore, remain asymptomatic for quite a long period. When gallstones symptoms manifest, however, they can be agonizing and painful. They may even lead to complications and long-term effects such as inflammation of the gallbladder or cholecystitis, gallbladder cancer, and infection.
The following are some symptoms of cholelithiasis:
- Biliary colic or dull pain in the upper right side of the abdominal area;
- Intolerance to fatty foods;
- Pain between shoulder blades;
- Nausea and vomiting;
- Flatulence or the buildup of gas in the intestines;
- Fever and chills;
Apart from these, other red flags that one must pay attention to are jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes, tea-colored urine, and clay-colored stools.
Who Is at Risk for Gallstone Disease?
As reported by the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), the following population groups are more likely to develop gallbladder stones:
- Women aged 20 and over;
- Men over the age of 60;
- Pregnant women, women who have undergone estrogen replacement therapy, or women who have used birth control pills; and
- People who have gone on extreme diets to lose weight quickly
How Can Gallstones Be Diagnosed?
Medical or healthcare professionals may use a combination of lab tests and imaging tests to diagnose gallstones.
The following are some of the tests that may be used to establish the diagnosis:
- Blood tests, to check for evidence of gallbladder disease by evaluating blood count or measuring levels of amylase or lipase enzymes (key digestive enzymes)
- Ultrasound testing, to capture images of the gallbladder
- Computed Tomography (CT), for constructing detailed x-ray images of organs of the abdomen
- A HIDA scan or cholescintigraphy to assess bladder emptying function
- Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP), to generate detailed images of the biliary tree consisting of the liver, bile ducts, and gallbladder
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), a more invasive test to help locate and treat problems of the bile duct and pancreatic ducts.
Treatment Options for Gallbladder Stones
Some gallstones treatment options may include:
- Conventional Medicine such as oral bile acids like ursodiol and chenodiol
- A wait-and-see approach
- Non-surgical treatments such as MTBE Injections, Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), percutaneous cholecystostomy and in rare cases, shock wave lithotripsy to blast large gallstones into small pieces; or
- Surgery to remove the gallbladder (cholecystectomy)
Surgery to remove the gallbladder, or cholecystectomy, may be recommended if gallstones recur frequently.
Cholecystectomy is of two types:
- Laparoscopic cholecystectomy, which is minimally invasive and commonly performed
- Open cholecystectomy, which is recommended when the gallbladder is severely infected, inflamed or scarred from other operations.
Home Remedies for Gallstones
Alongside following your doctor’s treatment plan, you could add alternative and complementary therapies for relief, too.
Some widely recommended home remedies for gallstones include:
- Gallbladder Flush: This involves consuming a combination of herbs, olive oil and some type of fruit juice for 2 to 5 days.
- Milk Thistle: Commonly taken in the form of capsules or a liquid extract, milk thistle is believed to help with detoxification of the liver and gallbladder.
- Green Tea: This antioxidant herbal remedy has proven to protect against the formation of gallstones.
- Turmeric: Turmeric is said to promote the emptying of the gallbladder and stimulate the formation of bile.
- Globe Artichoke: Extracts of globe artichoke are shown to assist with bile production and support both gallbladder and liver function.
These remedies lack scientific evidence to render them effective treatments for gallbladder stone symptoms. Hence, one must consult a doctor before making use of these treatments.
How Can Gallstones Be Prevented?
Many risk factors of gallstone disease such as age, gender, ethnic background, and genetics cannot be modified to prevent the formation of gallstones.
However, gallstones can be effectively managed and prevented by:
- Following a healthy diet plan that emphasizes high-fiber foods and healthy fats. Fried foods, processed meats, high-fat dairy products, refined carbohydrates, alcohol, and sugar should be restricted;
- Maintaining a healthy weight by engaging in regular physical activity; and
- Avoid smoking as it can contribute to the development of gallbladder stones.
If you experience acute cholecystitis or develop symptoms such as fever, chills, nausea or vomiting, seek immediate treatment. You can schedule an appointment with a gastroenterologist or surgeon at CK Birla Hospital.