In previous columns we explored the gallbladder and its role in digestion. What we have not yet talked about are the symptoms that gallstones can cause and the management options available. Gallbladder disease affects roughly 20% of people at some point in their lives and over 700,000 gallbladders are removed annually in the U.S. Gallstones are the main culprit in the majority of these cases.
Gallstones form over time for numerous reasons – genetics, diet, lifestyle, other diseases, etc. There are many different types. For most people they are asymptomatic and we are never aware of having them. When they do cause problems, the classic symptoms are as follows:
- Pain in the upper abdomen on the right side, just below the ribs; it can vary in severity and character with aches in some cases and sharp sensations in others
- Pain is the result of eating, especially foods containing higher levels of fat (dairy, fried foods, etc.)
- Nausea, poor appetite and malaise (feeling unwell) may be associated with the pain and last for a few minutes or several hours
These are the classic symptoms of gallstones, but they can present in different ways as well. If these sound familiar, start by having a discussion with your physician to discuss them. Other illnesses such as stomach ulcers, gastritis and pancreatitis can also cause similar symptoms.
When gallbladder disease is suspected, an ultrasound can identify gallstones and any associated complications. For folks who have gallstones that are causing persistent or troubling symptoms, the recommended treatment is surgery to remove the entire gallbladder. I am often asked if this is the only option, but currently medical management has not been shown to be as effective as surgery. Additionally, unlike kidney stones, gallstones cannot be broken up or removed separately. Take heart though; we can all live long and fulfilling lives without our gallbladders.
This column is sponsored by Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center, and the opinions expressed herein may not reflect those of CFHN or of its advertisers.
Dr Seetahal is a board-certified general and bariatric surgeon. He has published over 20 scientific articles and book chapters. For questions related to surgical health, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call his office at 863-421-7626 to schedule an appointment.