One of the most common internal conditions, affecting more than 3 million people in the US each year, is gallstones. Still, most of us know very little about gallstones until it happens to us or a loved one.
What are Gallstones?
They’re not actually stones, of course. Gallstones are solid deposits that are formed from either cholesterol (the most common type) or bilirubin from the liver. Gallstones are often detected during imaging scans such as an ultrasound. Often they go undetected for years, because in many people gallstones don’t cause any problematic symptoms. However, sometimes the deposits can block a bile duct and cause pain.
Can gallstones be prevented?
To some degree, you have control over whether you experience gallstones. The condition is partly genetic, and no one can change their DNA. Those with diabetes are also more susceptible. But various lifestyle factors also contribute, such as:
- Your weight – higher weight is associated with increased incidence of gallstones
- Your diet – if your cholesterol levels are too high, due to diet, you are more likely to develop gallstones
- Drinking alcohol – those with cirrhosis of the liver face a greater risk of gallstones
Medications are another common factor in the development of gallstones. If you take medication that boosts estrogen in the body, such as hormone replacement therapy for menopause, you should be extra mindful of the risk of gallstones.
Oddly enough, even though high cholesterol is a risk factor for gallstones, taking medication to lower your cholesterol can also trigger the problem. This situation points to the importance of preventing high cholesterol in the first place, by following a healthy diet.
Symptoms of gallstones.
Many people have gallstones for years, without any trouble or symptoms. But when symptoms do occur, you might experience:
- Pain in the upper belly and upper back
- Bloating, indigestion, heartburn, and gas
How are gallstones diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects gallstones, he might perform an ultrasound, CT scan, or other imaging tests to look for the stones. You might also need a blood test, to rule out signs of infection. Treatment usually involves surgery to remove the entire gallbladder. Some people with certain medical conditions should not have surgery, and will instead take medications to dissolve the stones. These medications often take years to work, however, and the stones can come back after some time.
If you suspect you might have gallstones, talk to your doctor about your symptoms. Luckily, in the vast majority of cases, the condition is quite easy to treat.