What are the symptoms of gallstones?

You may not experience any symptoms if you have gallstones. According to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG), 80 percent of people who have gallstones don’t have any pain at all. These are called “silent” gallstones. Your doctor may find these stones in your gallbladder from X-rays or performing surgery on your abdomen.

Some people do have gallstone symptoms. The most common symptom of gallstones is pain in the right upper quadrant of your abdomen. The pain often radiates to your back or right shoulder or shoulder blade.

Other symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • A yellowish tint in your skin or eyes, which can indicate jaundice
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Clay-coloured stools

Gallstones can lurk inside your gallbladder. Many people have gallstones and never know it. Gallstones are hard deposits in your gallbladder, a small organ that stores bile, which is a digestive fluid made in the liver. Gallstones may consist of cholesterol, salt, or bilirubin (discarded red blood cells). Gallstones range in size. They can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as an apricot.

What causes gallstones?

The components in bile can crystallize and harden in your gallbladder, leading to gallstones. According to Harvard Health Publications, 80 percent of gallstones are made of cholesterol. The other 20 percent of gallstones are made of calcium salts and bilirubin. These are known as pigment stones.

Who is at risk for gallstones?

While your body produces cholesterol naturally, you can also take in excess cholesterol through your diet. Many risk factors for gallstones are related to diet.

These include:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Eating a diet that’s high in fat or cholesterol
  • Rapid weight loss within a short period of time
  • Eating diet that’s high in fibre
  • Having diabetes mellitus

Other risk factors include:

  • Being female
  • Being of American Indian or Mexican-American descent
  • Being pregnant
  • Having a family history of gallstones
  • Being age 60 or older
  • Having cirrhosis of the liver
  • Taking certain medications for lowering cholesterol
  • Taking medications that have a high oestrogen content

Don’t stop taking any medicines unless you have discussed it with your doctor.

How are gallstones treated?

Your doctor may use any of several treatment options to remove stones or improve your condition.

Surgery

Surgery is often the first option if you have significant symptoms.

Your doctor may need to perform a laparoscopic gallbladder removal, which is a common surgery. General anaesthesia is usually required for gallbladder removal. The surgeon will usually make three or four incisions on your abdomen. Your surgeon will insert a small, lighted device into one of the incisions and carefully remove your gallbladder.

You usually go home on the day of the procedure if you have no complications.

Medications

Drugs that dissolve gallstones caused by cholesterol are an option if you cannot undergo surgery. These medications may take several years to eliminate the gallstones.