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Symptoms and treatment of gallbladder disease

Gallstones are crystal-like substances that form in the gallbladder, ranging in size from of a grain of sand to a golf ball. A person can have a single large gallstone or hundreds of tiny ones, or any combination of the two. These stones occur when bile – a liquid found in the gallbladder which helps digest fats – hardens. Typically, bile is passed through a tube to the small intestine in order to help with digestion, but if the liquid hardens and a gallstone develops, it will block the tube and prevent any more fluid from passing through.

There are two types of gallstones – cholesterol stones and pigment stones. The former are made from hardened cholesterol and are normally a yellowish-green color, while the latter are made from bilirubin and are smaller and darker in color. Pigment stones are the rarer of the two, as 80 percent of all gallstones are cholesterol stones.

Gallstone Causes and Symptoms

Though the cause is not yet fully known, pigment stones have been linked to cirrhosis of the liver, biliary tract infections and blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia. Cholesterol stones occur when bile stored in the gallbladder contains excessive amounts of cholesterol or bilirubin (or when there is a lack of bile salts), though it is also not yet known what causes these levels to fluctuate.

Gallstones symptoms include gallbladder pain and pain between the shoulder blades or under the right shoulder. These symptoms are associated with a "gallbladder attack," which typically occurs while a person is sleeping or following a high-fat meal. Other symptoms include pain that lasts over 5 hours, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, clay-colored stools and yellowing skin or in the whites of the eyes.

Gallstone Treatment

Some gallstones never cause any symptoms and are only spotted during X-rays, therefore they do not need treatment. A gallbladder diet that is high in water-soluble fiber and fruits and vegetables may be recommended. When symptoms do occur, gallbladder surgery is a common treatment. While it may seem like an extreme measure, gallbladder removal is actually one of the most common surgeries in the US, as the gallbladder is considered a non-essential organ.

Drug treatments are also used to cure gallstones. Oral drug treatment can take months or years to dissolve a gallstone and can cause diarrhea and high cholesterol. Direct injection treatments may take only a few days but can cause irritation and may result in complications.

Conditions Related to Gallstones

  • Gallstone pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas caused by blockage of the bile ducts)
  • Cholecystitis (a gallbladder disease that causes inflammation of the gallbladder)
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