Gallstones: What They Are and 4 Symptoms to Look For

Don’t sweat it — there’s a low risk and clear signs you’re experiencing an attack.

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You’ve probably heard of kidney stones and know they’re extremely painful to pass. But how can you tell the difference between them and gallstones? While both may cause painful symptoms, there are a few key differences between gallstones and kidney stones.

Gallstones are clumps of cholesterol that crystallize in the gallbladder. Your gallbladder is a small organ that sits under your liver and stores bile, which helps you digest fat. Gallstones develop when excessive amounts of fat are in the bile.

The Symptoms That Point to a Gallstones Attack

Often, gallstones are “silent” and undetectable, so it can be hard to recognize that you have them. When they’re not causing symptoms, gallstones generally don’t need treatment. However, if they start to cause inflammation, pain, or illness, it may be time to take action.

There’s only a small chance that gallstones will lead to an attack. This is when gallstones are blocking a bile duct, causing serious symptoms that may require treatment.

You should head to your doctor if you have all the following symptoms together:

  1. Fever and sweating
  2. Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  3. Jaundice (yellow eyes or skin)
  4. Intense pain in the upper abdomen, that may radiate to the chest, or right shoulder, lasting 1-2 hours

It’s important to address a gallbladder attack because they can also cause other complications if they continue to block the bile duct.

Potential complications include:

  1. Gallbladder infection
  2. Bile duct infection
  3. Infection in the blood
  4. Pancreas inflammation

Plus, repeated gallstone attacks can really affect your quality of life. These painful episodes may cause you to miss school, work, or social events. By seeking treatment, you can get back to your normal life.

There Are A Few Treatment Options

The most common treatment is a surgery known as cholecystectomy. This means removing the gallbladder. Today, surgeons often perform laparoscopic cholecystectomies, meaning they only need to make a few tiny incisions. This type of surgery is less invasive and often has a shorter recovery time than an open surgery (when the surgeon makes one large incision).

Another treatment option is ursodeoxycholic acid, which may help to dissolve gallstones into smaller pieces. This option can take six to 12 months, but it is a viable alternative if surgery is too high-risk for your condition.

Preventing Gallstones

Remember, gallstones form when there is too much fat in the bile. While there are a number of factors that may contribute to gallstones, diet is definitely a factor. It may help to maintain a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fiber, whole grains, and healthy fats. It can also help to limit saturated fats, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods.

Gallstones are most common in older women, those with obesity, high cholesterol in the blood, and those on medications for estrogen, diabetes, or weight-loss treatments.

Even though the majority of gallstones stay “silent” and pose no harm, see your doctor if you experience the above symptoms. Surgery may seem like an intimidating option, but if it’s the right approach for you, the results will likely be worth it.