Gallstones are a growth that develops within the gallbladder, the small sac below the liver that stores bile until it's needed. They're called gallstones because they are similar to pebbles and they occur when bile hardens and solidifies.
Gallstones occur more frequently in women, in people older than 60, in those with diabetes and in those who are overweight. People with a diet high in cholesterol or a family history of gallstones are also more likely to get them. Some ethnic groups, including Native Americans and those of Mexican descent, are also at a greater risk for gallstones. So are pregnant women and women who take birth control pills.
Symptoms of Gallstones
It's possible for a gallstone to be present in the body and not cause pain. In such instances, treatment isn't needed. When a gallstone does present symptoms, however, it can be extremely painful. This usually occurs when the gallstone tries to exit the gallbladder and enter the intestines. It often blocks the passageway and causes extreme pain in the back or upper right part of the belly. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, jaundice (yellowing skin) or fever. This lasts for several hours and is called a gallbladder attack.
Complications from gallstones can also occur. The blockage leads to damage and infection not only to the gallbladder but also potentially the liver or pancreas. The condition can be fatal if not treated.
Prevention and Treatment
The most common remedy for frequent, painful gallstones is to have them removed surgically, procedure that's called a cholecystectomy. The gallbladder is a nonessential organ, and this procedure can typically be performed with minimal complications. If a person's health prevents the surgery from being performed, other nonsurgical methods for treating gallstones can be used. Called dissolution therapy, the treatment involves taking a medication to dissolve the gallstones within the gallbladder.