Everything You Need to Know About Gallstone Attacks

In 75 per cent of cases, gallstones don’t cause any symptoms. However, if a troublesome case is left untreated, they can lead to serious health problems.

Man experiencing pain from gallstonesPhoto: Shutterstock

Why You Should Get Your Gallstones Checked Out

For a small, inessential body part, the gallbladder can cause a lot of pain. Roughly the shape and size of a pear, the organ sits in the right side of your abdomen. Its job is storing bile, a liquid produced by the liver that helps you digest the fats in your diet. The gallbladder releases the liquid as needed into the small intestine. (Here are 11 body parts you never knew you had.)

When bile’s delicate chemical balance gets thrown off—we don’t fully know how or why—its components can crystallize. Over years, these crystals can combine to form gallstones (medical term: cholelithiasis), which can be as tiny as grains of sand or as large as golf balls. In at least 75 per cent of cases, gallstones don’t cause symptoms or complications and therefore don’t require treatment. (Check out these nine superfoods for a healthy gallbladder diet.)

However, should a stone temporarily block one of the bile ducts leading in and out of the gallbladder, the result is a sudden, short-lived bout of gripping or gnawing pain in the abdomen, rib cage area or shoulder. This won’t cause lasting damage, but you might like to visit a GP to confirm that it is indeed gallstones and not another problem, such as an ulcer. (These foods can prevent ulcers.)

Longer-term or permanent duct blockage can lead to serious complications, like infections and inflammation. Therefore, you should see a doctor immediately if you experience symptoms that include jaundice, fever, chills or incessant pain. (Your body can still function without these nine organs.)

Gallstones have a greater chance of developing in women, adults over the age of 40 and people with a family history of the condition. Beyond that, the major correctable risk factor is obesity, says Dr. Stephen Ryder, medical advisor to the British Liver Trust. But Ryder cautions against shedding weight quickly: “Rapid weight loss or gain can cause stones to form and can trigger symptoms, so controlled weight loss is best.”

If you already suffer from symptomatic gallstones and the attacks are mild, you could manage their effects with painkillers; a low-fat diet may also make a modest difference. If your symptoms are severe and frequent, the only effective treatment is the sur­gical removal of the gallbladder.

You can live without the organ: your liver will still produce bile, which will drip directly into the small intestine rather than collecting in the gallbladder first. Post-­surgery, approximately one in 10 patients experience occasional diarrhea as their digestive systems adapt to the continuous release of bile. The diarrhea might last anywhere from weeks to years, but medications called bile acid binders can help control this unpleasant side effect.

For most people, though, the difference between having a gallbladder and not having one is unnoticeable.

Plus: 6 Common Symptoms That Could Indicate a Serious Problem

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada