What is the gallbladder?
The gallbladder is a small pear-shaped organ found under the liver on the right side. It stores bile. Bile is a greenish-brown fluid produced by the liver. Bile helps the body digest fats.
Normally, the gallbladder stores and concentrates bile in-between meals. After eating, fatty food in the intestines caused the gallbladder to squeeze the bile into the intestine. A few hours later, the gallbladder relaxes and begins to store bile again
What are gallstones?
Gallstones are small stones that form inside the gallbladder. They can be very small like a speck of sand or very large. Sometimes, the gallstones block the gallbladder and prevent it from emptying. Gallstones can also irritate the gallbladder. If the gallstones are pushed out of the gallbladder, they can clog up the liver or pancreas.
People who have bile that have an abnormally high concentration of cholesterol or calcium may develop gallstones. Gallstones are more common in women. The risk of gallstones also increases with pregnancy, age and obesity.
What are the symptoms of gallstones?
In most cases, gallstones do not cause any problems. When they do cause symptoms, gallstones can cause:
- Abdominal pain – usually on the right side just under the ribs or in the middle top part of the tummy.
- Pain in the back or right shoulder
- Nausea or vomiting
- Bloatedness or indigestion
If you know that you have gallstones but have no symptoms, you probably will not need treatment. However, if you start to have symptoms, you should get treated. The symptoms can come on and off, but they often get worse over time.
Are gallstones serious?
Not usually. However, gallstones sometimes can lead to serious problems, including:
- Gallbladder infection
- Jaundice, a condition when your skin and eyes turn yellow
- Gallbladder perforation
- Inflammation of the pancreas (the pancreas is a gland that makes hormones and digestive juices involved in food breakdown)
What test can be done to check for gallstones?
Doctors can find out if you have gallstones by doing an ultrasound scan. An ultrasound scan is a painless test that uses sound waves to check for gallstones. It is not invasive and does not involve the use of radiation.
How are gallstones treated?
No treatment is needed for people with gallstones and has no symptoms. If they start having symptoms, they can think about treatment then. Your doctor may need to do other tests to make sure your stones and your symptoms are related.
Surgery to remove the gallbladder and the stones is the standard treatment for gallstones causing symptoms or disease. Medicine to dissolve the gallstones can work but they take a long time, usually months to years. Medicine is seldom used nowadays. People with severe symptoms may not want to wait that long to get better. The use of strong sound waves to blast and break up the gallstones is also rarely done now. The small fragmented stones can move down the bile duct to cause blockage and other problems. Plus, the stones can form again after such treatment.
Gallbladder surgery removes both the gallbladder and the gallstones. This surgery is also called “cholecystectomy”. It is a commonly performed operation. The risks of the surgery are low. Gallbladder surgery is done under general anaesthesia. Surgery may be done through an open cut in the skin. In most cases now, the surgery is done using small instruments and a video camera, which are inserted into the abdomen through a few small keyholes. This is called laparoscopic cholecystectomy.
The gallbladder is an important organ, but you can live without it. Removing the gallbladder does not affect digestion very much. About half of the patients who have surgery have mild symptoms afterwards, including loose bowel movement, gas or bloating. These symptoms usually do not require treatment and get better with time. People who have their gallbladder removed do not need to worry about gallstones coming back.