The gallbladder is a pouch-shaped organ located in the upper right abdomen. Connected to the liver and small intestine, the gallbladder produces bile, a greenish liquid that aids in:
- The digestion of fats
- Carrying waste products out of the liver
- The absorption of certain important vitamins
On occasion, bile hardens and forms hard pebbles in the gallbladder. These pebbles are known as gallstones. Gallstones vary in size ranging from a grain of sand to four centimetres or more in diameter. When gallstones accumulate and prevent the passage of bile through the gallbladder, pressure increases and causes pain in the abdomen.
In many, gallstones do not cause any symptoms. In others, one or more of the following symptoms can occur:
- Severe abdominal pain that can be confused with a heart attack or angina
- Nausea or vomiting
- Pain in the right shoulder or back
Causes and triggers
There are several risk factors associated with gallstones, including:
- Gender (gallstones are more common in women)
- Genetics (heredity)
- Rapid weight loss
- Lack of physical activity
- Fasting (going without eating for relatively long periods)
- Pregnancy or multiple pregnancies
- Being First Nations
- The use of medications that contain estrogen (e.g., birth control pill) or cholesterol-lowering medications
Certain chronic diseases, such as liver disease, or diseases that affect red blood cells, may contribute to the formation of a rarer type of gallstones known as pigment stones.
To prevent gallstones from forming, it is recommended that you maintain a healthy weight and choose high-fibre foods (e.g., whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes). Also, if starting a weight-loss program, it is best to lose weight gradually, especially if you are very obese.
Gallstones that do not cause any symptoms can usually be left untreated. If you experience pain, however, action must be taken. In most cases, surgical removal of the gallbladder and the gallstones is required. In some cases, the gallstones are dissolved with the use of medication. This treatment, however, does not prevent the gallstones from coming back eventually.
When should I see a healthcare professional?
See your health provider if you have gallstones and if you experience:
- Intense pain or pain lasting several consecutive hours
- Pain with nausea, vomiting or fever
- Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes (sign of jaundice)
- Dark-coloured urine or light-coloured stool