Gallstones are small stones that develop in the gallbladder; they can be harmless but equally, they can also cause troubles if they move out of the gallbladder or become trapped in one of the ducts inside the gallbladder. Gallstones are usually made of cholesterol. Gallstones are very common; it is estimated that at least 1 in 10 adults in the UK have gallstones.
Gallstones may be asymptomatic, uncomplicated or complicated; asymptomatic gallstones are the most common type. Asymptomatic stones do not cause any problems and may go unnoticed for many years, while uncomplicated gallstones can cause severe bouts of abdominal pain but are not usually considered a serious health condition. Complicated gallstones can be very dangerous; they usually cause the gallbladder to become inflamed, which can contribute to a number of more serious symptoms.
What causes gallstones?
The gallbladder is responsible for storing bile; gallstones are commonly formed as a result of an imbalance in the make-up of the bile inside the gallbladder. Although the exact cause of gallstones is still a subject of controversy, there are a number of risk factors which contribute to the development of gallstones; thee include:
- Being female: women are much more likely to develop gallstones than men, especially if they have had children
- Age: people over the age of 40 are more likely to develop gallstones
- Additional health conditions including IBS and Crohn’s disease may also increase the chance of getting gallstones
- People that have had weight loss surgery
- Family history
- People with cirrhosis of the liver
Symptoms of gallstones
Many people with gallstones don’t experience any symptoms; however, people that have either uncomplicated or complicated gallstones will usually experience symptoms. The most common symptom of uncomplicated gallstones is a pain known as biliary colic; this causes sudden bouts of severe abdominal pain, which can last up to 5 hours. Biliary colic is linked to eating fatty foods. Additional symptoms of uncomplicated stones include vomiting, nausea and sweating.
Symptoms of complicated gallstones are much more serious as they result from the inflammation of the gallbladder (acute cholecystitis), pancreas (acute pancreatitis) and bile ducts (acute cholangitis); they include:
- Soaring temperature (over 38 degrees)
- Persistent pain in the abdomen, which may extend to the shoulder blades
- Irregular, racing heartbeat
- Irritated skin
- Change in appetite
Patients that have asymptomatic gallstones usually receive no treatment but are urged to keep an eye out for signs that their condition has worsened such as pains including biliary colic and changes in appetite. Uncomplicated gallstones are usually treated using pain relief medication if the bouts of pain are rare and the condition is not causing any other health problems; in the event that the stones are causing troubles and preventing a patient from living their normal life, surgery will usually be advised. Surgery is used to remove the gallbladder; although the gallbladder is a useful organ, it is not essential and patients will not suffer without it. Surgery is carried out in almost all cases of complicated gallstones; the procedure may involve keyhole or open surgery.
Preventing digestive disorders
Some digestive disorders cannot be prevented but there are a few simple steps that you can take to reduce the possibility of suffering from digestive problems; these include:
- Eating healthily: eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and wholegrain foods; these foods are high in fibre which aids digestion
- Avoiding stress
- Cutting down on alcohol- experts recommend that women should have no more than 2-3 units per day and men should have no more than 3-4 units each day)
- Stopping smoking
- Cutting down on fatty foods that are high in cholesterol (such as processed meat, pies, cakes, butter and fried foods); cholesterol affects the chemical make-up of bile as well as contributing to a host of other health problems
- Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water
- Lose weight (if you are overweight or obese)
- See a doctor if you have symptoms; if you are diagnosed you can then be treated, which will save you from suffering from embarrassing and painful symptoms. If you have a family history of digestive disorders, it may be beneficial to undergo some tests to see if you also have the condition.