What are the gallbladder and gallstones?
The gallbladder is a small sac found just under the liver. It stores bile made by the liver. Bile helps you digest fats. Bile moves from the gallbladder to the small intestine through tubes called the cystic duct and common bile duct.
Gallstones are made from cholesterol and other things found in the bile. They can be smaller than a grain of sand or as large as a golf ball.
Most gallstones do not cause problems. But if they block a duct, they usually need treatment.
What causes gallstones?
Gallstones form when cholesterol and other things found in bile make stones. They can also form if the gallbladder does not empty as it should. People who are overweight or who are trying to lose weight quickly are more likely to get gallstones.
What are the symptoms?
Most people who have gallstones do not have symptoms.
If you have symptoms, you most likely will have mild pain in the pit of your stomach or in the upper right part of your belly. Pain may spread to your right upper back or shoulder blade area. Sometimes the pain is more severe. It may be steady, or it may come and go. Or it may get worse when you eat.
When gallstones keep blocking a bile duct, you may have pain with fever and chills. Or your skin or the whites of your eyes may turn yellow. Call your doctor right away. Having stones in your bile duct increases your chance of having a swollen pancreas (pancreatitis). These symptoms may also be a sign of an infected gallbladder.
Call your doctor right away if you have sudden or bad pain in your belly or chest and you are not sure what is causing it. Symptoms of gallstones may feel like chest pain caused by a heart attack or other serious problems.
How are gallstones diagnosed?
You may decide to go to the doctor because of pain in your belly. In this case, your doctor will ask you questions about when the pain started, where it is, and if it comes and goes or is always there. Your doctor may order imaging tests. These take pictures of the inside of your body. An ultrasound of the belly is the best test to find gallstones. This test does not hurt.
Your ultrasound may not show gallstones. But if your doctor still thinks you have a problem with your gallbladder, he or she may order a gallbladder scan. In this test, a doctor injects dye into a vein in your arm. Then a machine takes X-rays as the dye moves through your liver, bile duct, gallbladder, and intestine.
Most people have gallstones but don't know it because they do not have symptoms. Gallstones may be found by accident when you have tests for other health problems or when a woman has an ultrasound during pregnancy.
How are they treated?
If you do not have symptoms, you probably do not need treatment.
If your first gallstone attack causes mild pain, your doctor may tell you to take pain medicine and wait to see if the pain goes away. You may never have another attack. Waiting to see what happens usually will not cause problems.
If you have a bad attack, or if you have a second attack, you may want to have your gallbladder removed. A second attack means you are more likely to have future attacks.
Many people have their gallbladders removed, and the surgery usually goes well. Doctors most often use laparoscopic surgery. For this, your surgeon will make small cuts in your belly and remove your gallbladder. You will probably be able to go back to work or your normal routine in a week or two, but it may take longer for some people. Sometimes the surgeon will have to make a larger cut to remove the gallbladder. It will take longer for you to recover from this type of surgery.
Do you need your gallbladder?
Your body will work fine without a gallbladder. Bile will flow straight from the liver to the intestine. There may be small changes in how you digest food, but you probably will not notice them.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about gallstones:
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