Nearly one million new cases of gallstones are diagnosed each year in the United States according to the American Gastroenterological Association. To understand this condition that affects 10 to 15% of Americans, it is important to understand how the gallbladder works, what it does for us, and what puts one at a greater risk for gallstones.
The gallbladder is a sac about the size and shape of a pear that sits beneath the liver and stores bile which is a key digestive fluid. The gallbladder contracts after meals, releasing bile into the digestive tract as needed. After digestion, the gallbladder relaxes and begins its job of storing bile from the liver again.
Gallstones form when some of the substances contained in bile – such as cholesterol and bilirubin – collect, crystalize, and settle in the gallbladder. Most cases of gallstones are cholesterol stones. Gallstones can be as small as a grain of sand or as big as a golf ball, and the gallbladder can contain as few as one or as many as hundreds. The reason some people get gallstones and others don’t is not completely clear, but there are several possible reasons and some known risk factors:
- Family history of gallstones
- Taking medications to lower cholesterol levels
- Having diabetes
- Having liver disease
- Rapid, large loss of weight
- Being female
- Taking birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
- Being pregnant
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Being overweight
- Eating a diet rich in fat and cholesterol and without enough fiber
Often, gallstones cause no symptoms at all and are diagnosed during screening for some other health problem. Generally, if the stones aren’t causing symptoms, no treatment is required. However, many people experience symptoms such as severe abdominal and/or back pain that can last from 15 minutes to several hours. Other symptoms can include fever, vomiting, and sweats. Attacks may happen frequently or can happen even years apart.
The most common treatment for symptomatic gallstones is surgery called cholecystectomy. Dr. Johnson specializes in minimally invasive gallbladder surgery using state-of-the-art robotic techniques. If you are experiencing gallstone symptoms or have been diagnosed and are considering surgery, call today for a consultation.