Dr. Nooman Gilani, MD, FACG, AGAF is the chairman of gastroenterology department at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center, Glendale, AZ. His office can be reached at (602) 343-6233.
Question: Will you please explain what gallstones are and how they are treated?
Answer: Gallstones develop inside the gallbladder – a small organ on the right side of the abdomen that stores and releases bile to help digest fats. Gallstones, which can range from a few millimeters to several centimeters, form when bile hardens into one or more stone-like deposits.
There are two main types of gallstones: cholesterol predominant stones and pigment stones. Mixed-type stones (cholesterol and pigment) are also common. Cholesterol gallstones are the most common and, as their name suggests, are primarily made up of cholesterol deposits. Pigment gallstones are the result of excess bilirubin in an individual’s bile. Although it’s uncertain why gallstones develop, their formation is thought to be the result of excess cholesterol or bilirubin in a person’s bile, or a gallbladder that doesn’t empty as it should.
Gallstones are quite common. In fact, many people go through life unaware that they even have gallstones as they do not experience any noticeable symptoms. When gallstones do not cause any symptoms, there is usually no need to treat them. On the other hand, symptoms can occur when a gallstone gets lodged in and blocks either the cystic duct or bile ducts. If this occurs, people often experience symptoms such as: sudden and/or intermittent pain in the upper right part of the abdomen; increasing pain below the breast bone in the center of the abdomen; pain between the shoulder blades; and, right shoulder pain. The additional presence of a fever my indicate a gallbladder or biliary infection. Pain from gallstones can last from just a few minutes to several hours.
If symptoms occur, it’s generally recommended that the gallbladder be surgically removed, a procedure known as cholecystectomy, which in most cases is performed laproscopically (a minimally invasive procedure). There are also medications available that are designed to dissolve gallstones, but these are not used very often as they are either ineffective, or may take months or even years to work.
Contact your healthcare provider if you experience any of the gallstone symptoms listed above, and seek immediate care if you experience severe abdominal pain, yellowing of the skin or eyes, or a high fever with chills.