Gallstones form when bile stored in the gallbladder hardens into stone-like material. Too much cholesterol, bile salts, or bilirubin (bile pigment) can cause gallstones.
What are the symptoms of gallstones?
At first, most gallstones do not cause symptoms. However, when gallstones become larger, or when they begin obstructing bile ducts, symptoms or “attacks” begin to occur. Attacks of gallstones usually occur after a fatty meal and at night. Symptoms may include:
- Steady, severe pain in the upper abdomen that increases rapidly and may last from 30 minutes to several hours
- Pain in the back between the shoulder blades
- Pain in the right shoulder
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
- Abdominal bloating
- Intolerance of fatty foods
- Belching or gas
People who also experience the following symptoms should consult a doctor immediately:
- Low-grade fever
- Yellowish color of the skin or whites of the eyes
- Clay-colored stools
Some people with gallstones do not have any symptoms. These stones are called “silent stones,” because they do not interfere with the function of the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas, and do not require treatment in most cases.
The symptoms of gallstones may resemble other conditions or medical problems, such as heart attack, appendicitis, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, hiatal hernia, pancreatitis, or hepatitis. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.
What are the risk factors for gallstones?
- Obesity. Being overweight is a major risk factor.
- Estrogen. Excess estrogen from pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills appears to increase cholesterol levels in bile and decrease gallbladder movement.
- Gender. Women are twice as likely to develop gallstones as men.
- Age. People over 60 are more likely to develop gallstones than younger people.
- Cholesterol-lowering drugs. Drugs that lower cholesterol in blood can actually increase the amount of cholesterol secreted in bile.
- Diabetes. People with diabetes generally have high levels of fatty acids, called triglycerides, which increase the risk for gallstones.
- Rapid weight loss. As the body metabolizes fat during rapid weight loss, it causes the liver to secrete extra cholesterol into bile, which can cause gallstones.
- Fasting. Fasting decreases gallbladder movement, which causes the bile to become over-concentrated with cholesterol.
Reduce your risk of gallstones
There is no way to prevent gallstones, but you can take steps to reduce the likelihood that you will form gallstones that will cause symptoms.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Take care not to lose weight quickly through dieting and then gain it back.
- Eat regular, balanced meals that include whole grains, fiber and calcium. Limit foods high in cholesterol.
- Exercise regularly, in order to maintain a healthy weight and keep cholesterol levels down.
Worried that you are experiencing gall bladder symptoms? OSF OnCall can provide guidance as to the best course of action.